John Oliver on protecting against ‘forever chemicals’: ‘It shouldn’t just be on us as individuals’

The Last Week Tonight host digs into contamination by non-biodegradable ‘forever chemicals’ in household wares and corporate cover-up of its health effects.

The Guardian, Mon 4 Oct 2021 11.38 EDT | Adrian Horton @adrian_horton

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John Oliver explored the toxic, long-hidden toll of certain “forever chemicals” used in common household products – everything from cosmetics to food packaging to wood sealants and non-stick pans.

The group of chemicals known as PFAS, with strong carbon-flourine bonds, do not degrade in the environment, and have been linked to health issues such as high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and decreased response to vaccines, “which is clearly terrible”, the Last Week Tonight host said, “but also really shouldn’t be that surprising to you seeing as the original name for this show was ‘That Thing You Like Is Bad with Saddy Longlegs’.”

These “forever chemicals” are estimated to have lifetimes in the thousands of years, and exposure has been linked to fertility problems, changes in metabolism, and an increased risk cancer, yet much remains unknown about their long-term consequences.

Oliver dug into the long history of PFAS’s corporate cover-up: the chemical PFOA, also known as C8, was first sold in 1951 by a company called 3M to chemical company DuPont, which used it to make Teflon, used for non-stick pans. Decades ago, as DuPont marketed Teflon to families, 3M already knew that some PFAS accumulated in humans and animals, that they did not degrade in the environment, and that they could increase the size of the liver in rats, rabbits and dogs.

In 1981, 3M found that ingestion of PFAS caused birth defects in rats; DuPont, once informed, tested children of employees in their Teflon division and found that two, of seven births, had eye defects – information the company did not make public.

By 1991, 3M told DuPont that under no circumstances should it ever dump PFOA into waterways; the company continued to do so, losing track of the amount it put into the environment. “Harmful chemicals are just not something you should lose track of,” Oliver said. “They’re not your car keys or your middle child.”

Even worse, in 1993, DuPont developed a viable alternative to C8 that was less toxic and stayed in the body for less time, but the company decided against it – the risk to its bottom line was too great, as Teflon products were worth $1bn in annual revenue, “proving once and for all corporations truly are people – specifically, sociopaths”, said Oliver.

“And if you are wondering where the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] was in all this, you should know they were more than a little hamstrung here,” he continued. Under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, the agency could only require testing for chemicals when it was provided evidence of potential wrongdoing – a set-up that “largely allows chemical companies to regulate themselves”, said Oliver, “which is an absolutely terrifying sequence of words, right up there with incoming FaceTime with Jeffrey Toobin”.

The most shocking discovery, Oliver continued, came in the 1970s, when Dupont and 3M started testing workers for PFAS levels in their blood. 3M wanted a control group of clean blood to measure against, but the company couldn’t find any uncontaminated blood – not from its workers, nor Americans, or even random people from across the world. As subsequent studies have found, C8 is in the blood of 99.7% of Americans, “meaning at the very least, Vin Diesel and I finally have something in common”, Oliver quipped.

Starting in 2015, Dupont phased out C8, but it did keep using a different PFAS known as GenX, production of which it spun off into a separate company, Chemours. “The problem is: if and when GenX is eventually found to be harmful, companies can presumably just move on to another one, then another one, and so on and so on,” said Oliver.

You don’t necessarily need to throw away your pans, Oliver reassured – experts say it’s unlikely PFAS will be released if the pans aren’t overheated or scraped. However, there is more risk of exposure from stain-proof or waterproof clothing that contains PFAS, such as wares made by such brands as Lululemon, The North Face and Patagonia, or food wrappers with PFAs used by such companies as Starbucks, Subway and Chick-fil-A. “All of these companies insist that they are working to remove PFAS from their products completely in the coming months and years, and I hope that is true,” said Oliver. “But we have heard things like that before, and yet here we fucking are.”

The host pointed to a public PFAS map to check contamination levels in your area, but “it shouldn’t just be on us as individuals”, he concluded. “PFAS should not be in most consumer products at all.” And as companies “seem unlikely to take them all out voluntarily, we badly need legislation limiting their use to only essential items like certain medical devices and protective clothing”.

Oliver also called for an overhaul of PFAS regulation: “Instead of regulating them one at a time, as we do now, we should do it as an entire class of chemicals.”