City of Portsmouth files lawsuit alleging drinking water contamination by “forever chemicals”

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — The city of Portsmouth is suing 3M, DuPont and many other companies alleging their products contaminated the city’s drinking water with toxic chemicals.

Chillicothe Street in downtown Portsmouth. (Aaron Payne | Ohio Valley ReSource)
Chillicothe Street in downtown Portsmouth. [Aaron Payne | Ohio Valley ReSource]
The lawsuit, filed Monday in federal court, focuses in particular on a spray foam commonly used to suppress large fires involving highly flammable liquids. It’s known as aqueous film-forming foam or AFFF.

Portsmouth joins a growing list of cities, states and individual firefighters who have filed lawsuits over the foam. In November, North Carolina’s attorney general sued more than a dozen manufacturers of the foam, citing drinking water contamination among other alleged harms, and Colorado’s attorney general filed a similar lawsuit in February.

The foam contains a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA. 3M began manufacturing PFOA in the early 1950s and then stopped in the early 2000s in response to growing concerns about it.

PFOA is among a group of synthetic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS. These chemicals are used in thousands of everyday products, such as Teflon and Scotchgard, and can be found in clothing, food packaging, furniture, carpet and other products to make them nonstick, stain resistant or water repellant.

The health risks associated with these chemicals have prompted thousands of lawsuits resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements.

Many of these lawsuits have been filed in Ohio and West Virginia, where DuPont operated a large plant a few miles outside Parkersburg that processed large volumes of PFOA in the production of Teflon and other products.

Wastewater from the plant flowed into the Ohio River and contaminated drinking water in communities along the river.

DuPont also no longer produces or uses PFOA.

PFOA is synthesized by combining atoms of carbon and fluorine. The bond created between these two elements is one of the strongest in nature. One consequence of this is that PFOA and other PFAS do not break down under normal environmental conditions, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.”

The chemicals mix easily with water, allowing them to spread with ease through surface water, soil and groundwater. They are also readily absorbed into human and animal tissue, where they can remain for many years.

Studies of laboratory animals and humans have linked PFOA to testicular and kidney cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis and pregnancy-induced hypertension. 3M and other companies emphasize that this link does not necessarily mean PFOA was the cause of these health problems.

In November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it plans to issue updated health advisories for PFOA based on recent studies that suggest PFOA is a likely carcinogen and that health problems may occur at much lower levels of exposure than previously thought.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says people are most commonly exposed to PFOA through drinking contaminated water. A study by CDC scientists found PFOA in the blood of nearly all of those tested, suggesting that exposure to the chemical is widespread in the population.

3M and DuPont have known for decades about the health risks associated with PFOA and other PFAS based on their own internal studies. In 2005, DuPont agreed to pay more than $16 million to settle a case brought by the EPA over the company’s failure to report information about the health risks of PFOA.

In its lawsuit, Portsmouth alleges that its drinking water supply is contaminated by PFOA from the residue of sprayable foam used to suppress fires. Because PFOA does not break down, the contamination will continue until it is removed, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit contends that PFOA makes drinking water unfit for consumption even at “extremely low levels.” It alleges the companies that made PFOA and the foam failed to warn customers about the possible health risks and did so knowingly in order to promote sales of their products.

“The gravity of the environmental harm … was, is and will be enormous because PFOA contamination is widespread, persistent and toxic,” the lawsuit alleges.

Portsmouth is asking that the defendants be required to pay for testing to determine the extent of contamination, to pay for removal and disposal costs and to cover the costs of ongoing monitoring to detect future contamination.

3M issued a statement in response to the lawsuit: “3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS — including AFFF (aqueous film-forming foam) — and will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship in our operations.”

DuPont spun off its chemical division into a separate business, called Chemours, 2015. It then merged with Dow Chemical in 2017 and the combined operation then split into three companies two years later, one of them a newer version of DuPont. DuPont has been accused of pursuing these corporate maneuvers to shield its assets from PFAS litigation.

A spokesperson said the new DuPont has never produced or sold PFOA or firefighting foam made with it and said in a statement: We believe this complaint is without merit, and is the latest example of DuPont being improperly named in litigation. We look forward to vigorously defending our record of safety, health and environmental stewardship.”