The state attorney general's office has filed a lawsuit against nearly two dozen manufacturers of so-called "forever chemicals," asserting the companies knew about their risks to the environment and humans for decades but lied and kept that knowledge hidden from the government and public to protect their businesses.
The chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been found in fish tissue, human breast milk and about 200 of the state's water sources so far as new statewide drinking-water testing requirements roll out. PFAS have been linked to several health problems, including cancer, and are emerging as one of the most pervasive sources of pollution on the planet.
The lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, relates to the PFAS in a type of firefighting foam often used around airports and military sites. It alleges companies including 3M, DuPont and 18 others violated state laws, including Washington's law against public nuisances, the Products Liability Act and Consumer Protection Act. The complaint asks the court to order the companies to pay the cost to clean up PFAS contamination.
The highest levels of PFAS in state drinking water have largely been found near places where those foams were used for decades in firefighting training exercises. Estimates cited in the complaint suggest cleanup costs could range between $5.3 million and $62.8 million for a single site contaminated with PFAS from firefighting foam.
Massive filtration systems can remove the contamination, but for many water system managers, the cost is out of reach. In Lakewood, Pierce County, where PFAS entered drinking water via the firefighting foam used at nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord, city officials spent more than $5 million on filtration systems.
In the suit, Attorney General Bob Ferguson submitted internal company documents that he says prove the manufacturers knew for decades about "the serious risks these chemicals posed to humans and the environment. The companies likely made many millions in profit while actively deceiving the public."
"Their corporate greed caused significant damage, and they need to be held accountable," said Ferguson in a statement.
Washington is now among thousands of plaintiffs — individuals, cities, counties and states — that have filed lawsuits against PFAS manufacturers. Last year, because of their similarities, this avalanche of lawsuits was consolidated into a multidistrict litigation in the U.S. District Court of South Carolina. Brionna Aho, communications director of the attorney general's office, said they expect this lawsuit will also be transferred to the multidistrict litigation.
The chemicals were first developed in the '50s and '60s by Minnesota-based 3M, at the request of the U.S. Navy, which was looking for a more effective substance than water to fight fires.
In January, the state Department of Health began requiring that some drinking water systems be monitored for PFAS, including 4,000 wells across the state. Just over a quarter of those wells have been tested and about 2% have come back with PFAS above a level that would require further action. The lack of a finding doesn't guarantee the chemicals' absence, but may only mean the concentration was below what present technology is able to detect.
For communities that rely on the wells where PFAS has been confirmed, the health and financial repercussions have been serious.
In drinking water sources near the Army's Yakima Training Center, tests have revealed PFAS contamination more than 1,300 times new limits proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And in Moses Lake, the site of a former Air Force base and landfill, city officials recently chose to shut off its drinking water source after testing revealed PFAS contamination in some of its 16 wells.
One well on Whidbey Island near the Naval Air Station registered 4,720 parts per trillion for one type of PFAS, more than 300 times the state action level for that chemical. On San Juan Island, where the source of the contamination remains elusive, recent tests revealed PFAS concentration up to 164 times the level considered safe by the state.
The chemicals have also been detected in at least 15 of the state's bodies of water, fish tissue, soil and sediment samples.
In the human body, some of the chemicals may disrupt the immune system; interfere with hormones; increase the risk of prostate, kidney and testicular cancers as well as high blood pressure in pregnant women; and harm the reproductive system, according to studies cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.