A story of feathers, wax, unheeded warnings, and the perils of modern-day chemical engineering
Cover Art: 17th-century depiction of Daedalus & Icarus – Musee Antoine Vivenel, Compiègne, France
In Greek mythology, the tale of Daedalus and Icarus provides a lesson that humanity has never learned. Daedalus and his son, Icarus were imprisoned in a tower. To escape, Daedalus created wings from feathers and wax. Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun for fear that the wax would melt. Icarus took off, exhilarated with the invention, and soared exuberantly toward the sun. His wings fell apart, and Icarus fell to his death.
Remarkable technologies escape our control and imperil mankind. Two astonishing inventions in 1938 are like Daedalus’ fastening of wings to wax: the splitting of the uranium atom by Nazi Germany, and the discovery of per and poly fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) by Dupont chemists in New Jersey.
Albert Einstein realized the Nazis might develop nuclear weaponry and it led him to advocate for creating America’s nuclear arsenal. When it was too late, he lamented his role in creating such a destructive force. “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophes,” he said.
The same applies to modern chemical engineering.
At the same time, the world witnessed the accidental discovery of a PFAS compound known as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Like splitting the uranium atom, this was one of the most significant scientific discoveries in all human history. PTFE was discovered by Roy J. Plunkett at the Dupont Company’s Jackson Laboratory in Deepwater, New Jersey.
The technology is somewhat more complicated than the wax and feathers Daedalus fashioned, but the results, like splitting the atom. have the potential to both serve and destroy humanity.
Plunkett had produced a hundred pounds of tetrafluoroethylene gas (TFE) and stored it in small cylinders at dry-ice temperatures before chlorinating it. When he prepared a cylinder for use, none of the gas came out—yet the cylinder weighed the same as before. Plunkett opened Pandora’s cylinder and found a white powder that is inert to virtually all chemicals and is considered the most slippery material in existence – and the most heat resistant.
It was used to manufacture Teflon products and variants became the active ingredient in fire-fighting foam during routine fire drills at military bases and airports. The amazing compounds are used in stain- and water-repellent fabrics, polishes, waxes, paints, food packaging, dental floss, cleaning products, chrome plating, electronics manufacturing, and oil recovery, to name some applications. These pathways – especially the use of PFAS as a fire-fighting foam that leaches into groundwater – allow the carcinogens to enter the human body which retains them forever. A 2015 study by the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found PFASs in 97 percent of human blood samples. As many as 5,000 individual fluorinated chemical substances have been developed since the initial discovery. PFAS is the modern-day manifestation of Pandora’s box, another Greek tale.
Apparently, Zeus still takes vengeance on Prometheus and all of humanity for stealing fire from heaven. Zeus presented Pandora to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus. Pandora carried a box that the gods said contained special gifts from them, but she was not allowed to open the box. Despite the warning, Pandora opened the box containing sickness, death and a host of evils which were then released into the world. Pandora was scared, because she saw all the evil spirits coming out and tried to close the box as quickly as possible, closing Hope inside!
All 5,000 PFAS substances are believed to be toxic.
The health effects of exposure to these chemicals include frequent miscarriages and other severe pregnancy complications. They contaminate human breast milk and sicken breast-feeding babies. Per and poly fluoroalkyls contribute to liver damage, kidney cancer, high cholesterol, an increased risk of thyroid disease, along with testicular cancer, micro-penis, and low sperm count in males.
Meanwhile, the EPA refuses to regulate the substances. It’s the wild west and the sheriff is nowhere to be found. The rudderless agency has chosen to establish a 70 ppt Lifetime Health Advisory (LHA) for drinking water. Advisories aren’t mandatory.
An LHA is the concentration of a chemical in drinking water that is not expected to cause any adverse noncarcinogenic effects for a lifetime of exposure. The LHA is based on exposure of a 70-kg adult consuming 2 liters of water per day.
In the absence of a properly functioning EPA, New Jersey, the birthplace of per and poly fluoroalkyl substances, has just implemented the nation’s toughest mandatory drinking and ground water standards of 10 ppt for PFAS and 10 ppt for PFOA. Environmental groups had called for a limit of 5 ppt for each chemical. Philippe Grandjean and colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health say exposure of 1 ppt in drinking water is detrimental to human health.
New Jersey’s new standards will not apply to DoD installations like the former Trenton Naval Air Warfare Center which closed in 1997. Recent testing there shows the Navy has contaminated the groundwater with 27,800 ppt of PFAS while Joint Base McGuireDix-Lakehurst has poisoned the groundwater with 1,688 ppt of the substances. There are numerous defense facilities in the state that were not included in a DoD report on widespread PFAS contamination, although they’re known to use the substances.
England Air Force Base in Alexandria Louisiana, a facility that closed in 1992, was recently found to have 10,900,000 ppt of the chemical in its groundwater. Some residents near the base are served by well water. Unlike New Jersey, Louisiana has not been proactive in protecting its citizens. Louisiana is apparently content with federal inaction on PFAS.
The EPA’s recently released Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Action Plan fails to implement limits to regulate PFAS and trivializes the potential human health impacts of the deadly chemicals. The military and polluting corporations can breathe a sigh of relief while they continue to poison the public.
It’s horrible. PFAS can change how well people are able to respond to infectious diseases. Scientists have shown that exposure to PFAS can alter the immune response and increase susceptibility to infectious diseases. Scientists have shown that PFAS exposure is associated with changes in expression of 52 genes involved in immunological and developmental functions. In short, PFAS has the potential to suppress the immune system. With almost all of humanity carrying these toxins, we ought to be more concerned.
Although the EPA doesn’t address it, scientists have clearly linked PFAS levels in the blood of pregnant women to these reactions in their children:
- Decreased antibody levels triggered by vaccines and altered immune-related health effects in early childhood.
- Fewer antibodies against rubella in vaccinated children.
- The number of common colds in children,
- Gastroenteritis in children.
- An increased number of respiratory tract infections in the first 10 years of life.
Icarus fell to his death, not understanding the dangers of his father’s technology. We have become Icarus. Humanity’s great advances must be monitored by those with the best intentions to safeguard our health and safety. Sadly, this is not our reality.
“If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals, eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones – we had better know something about their nature and their power.” ― Rachel Carson, Silent Spring