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Notes on the Valley

By Monith Ilavarasan

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About this blog: My parents, brother, and I moved to Pleasanton when I was in the seventh grade. I then graduated from Amador Valley High School, went to college at UC Davis and started out a career in tech. After several years working in large co...  (More)

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The forever chemicals

Uploaded: Mar 9, 2023
Last week the Pleasanton City Council once again talked through solutions for an issue that has been affecting the city for a few years. In 2019, the city shut down one of its three water wells after discovering Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS is a group of chemicals known to have wide ranging health effects for humans and animals.

Last year Pleasanton shut down its remaining water wells after discovering the chemicals existed there as well. Councilmembers, staff, and consultants talked through various solutions on how to address the issue long term.

In the Tri Valley PFAS contamination has been a growing concern for several years. The contamination is believed to have originated from the use of firefighting foams containing PFAS at the nearby Camp Parks military base and firefighting training facilities.

PFAS are a class of human-made chemicals used in a wide range of industrial and consumer products due to their heat-resistant and water-repellent properties. The history of PFAS dates back to the 1930s when researchers first discovered the unique properties of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is one of the most common and well-known PFAS compounds.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the use of PFAS compounds continued to grow as more and more industries began to recognize their unique properties. At the time, PFAS were considered a technological breakthrough because of their unique properties such as being water-resistant and non-stick.

However, as early as the 1960s, studies began to emerge showing that exposure to PFAS could be linked to a range of health problems, including cancer, developmental issues, and immune system dysfunction. Despite this, companies that produced and used PFAS continued to downplay or deny the risks associated with these chemicals These substances are known to be persistent in the environment and can accumulate in human and animal tissues, posing significant health risks.

In some cases, companies actively covered up the health risks of PFAS by suppressing research that showed the dangers of these chemicals.

In the 1980s, DuPont began receiving reports of health problems among workers at its Teflon plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, but failed to notify regulators or the public. The company also allegedly conducted secret studies that showed the toxic effects of PFAS but did not disclose the results.

Another multinational company, 3M, was accused of covering up the health risks of PFAS in the 1990s. It was discovered that the company had known for decades about the potential dangers of PFOA, a PFAS compound that was used in the production of Teflon. In 2018, the company reached a settlement with the Minnesota Attorney General's Office, in which it agreed to pay $850 million to be invested in drinking water and natural resource projects in the Twin Cities east metropolitan region.

In addition, California has taken steps to reduce the exposure to PFAS amongst its citizens. In 2020, California passed a law that banned the use of PFAS in firefighting foam for training purposes, as well as in food packaging for certain products such as microwave popcorn bags and takeout containers.

The law also required manufacturers to disclose the use of PFAS in cosmetics and personal care products.The state has also established drinking water standards for PFAS and requires public water systems to regularly test for these chemicals.

The legacy of PFAS usage has harmful consequences and companies that manufacture these chemicals have failed to hold up their end of the social bargain. However, recent efforts by our state and local governments have provided a strong push in the direction of correcting past wrongs for our future health.
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