In Wreck Bay Village, a small Aboriginal community 200 kilometres south of Sydney, illness is the norm. The area records almost the highest rate of premature death in the country, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Cancer, heart attacks and kidney disease are frighteningly common.
Cabbage Tree Road runs through farmland north of Newcastle. It’s a very different place to Wreck Bay, but it shares the same affliction. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that between 2002 and 2017, at least 39 people who lived along a five-kilometre stretch of the road were diagnosed with cancer.
Both communities received payouts from the federal government in recent court cases related to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
PFAS are a group of chemicals used in a range of products to make them resistant to water, heat and grease. They’re in everything from shampoo and shoes to pyjamas and paint. They’re in some firefighting foams, like those used at Royal Australian Air Force bases near Wreck Bay and Cabbage Tree Road. The scientific consensus now argues that PFAS are toxic for humans.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency says exposure to PFAS is tied to an increased risk of “some cancers, developmental effects in children, reduced fertility, increased cholesterol levels and reduced ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections, including reduced vaccine response”. While higher concentrations are more dangerous, “there’s really no level of exposure that’s been identified as safe”, says expert Dr Laurel Schaider.
There is still much that we don’t know about these chemicals; research overwhelmingly focuses on three or four types of PFAS, out of around 15,000 in existence.
They are often called “forever chemicals”, although “everywhere chemicals” would also be apt. PFAS don’t break down naturally, so when products containing them are produced, used or disposed of, the chemicals get into everything they touch.
The best way to avoid PFAS is to not live on planet Earth.
They are in the water we drink—a study by Stockholm University found that virtually all rainwater on Earth contains above-recommended levels of PFAS, as does most American tap water. The Environmental Working Group warns that eating a single freshwater fish from the US is equivalent to drinking PFAS-contaminated water for a month.
They’re also in the air, as well as the soil. They’re in monkeys in China and polar bears in the Arctic. They’re in 98-99 percent of people’s blood.
But this is not a fable about the uncontrollable power of chemical elements. PFAS contamination has a human cause—it has been created, profited off and systemically covered up by some of the world’s biggest corporations.
Two in particular must be singled out: DuPont, which created PFAS in 1938, and 3M. Since the 1950s, the chemicals have been a key ingredient in their respective corporate empires. DuPont pioneered their use in Teflon non-stick pans, while 3M puts PFAS in some of their most well-known products, like Command picture-hanging strips.
Both companies have known about the dangers of PFAS for decades. As early as 1961, DuPont scientists found that they caused liver enlargement in rats and warned that “contact with the skin should be strictly avoided”. In the 1980s, female workers in 3M factories were moved out of roles involving contact with PFAS after multiple employees gave birth to children with eye defects.
But, straight out of the play book of the big tobacco companies, DuPont and 3M assured the world that PFAS were safe. Workers who raised concerns were told the chemicals have a “low toxicity, like table salt”, according to Time magazine, and both companies buried their internal findings until they were hit with lawsuits in the late 1990s. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that one prominent scientist who downplayed the risk of PFAS received payments to his consultancy firm from 3M for over a decade.
While the chemicals seep out, the money rolls in. 3M ranked as the 116th-biggest US company, with a market value of US$87 billion in the 2023 Fortune 500. Dupont was ranked 250th and valued at US$53 billion.
But aren’t there supposed to be safety barriers protecting consumers from raw corporate power? Maybe a government department, an oversight committee or a set of regulations?
“There is this mythical ‘they’, that ‘they’re’ taking care of this, and it must be safe because it’s out there”, Scott Belcher from the Centre for Environmental and Health Effects of PFAS told the New York Times. “That’s a common misconception about how this works.”
In reality, chemical regulations are shockingly loose. The US Environmental Protection Agency has mandated safety testing for only a small number of the 85,000 industrial chemicals currently in use.
When “they” do exist, they can easily be brought to heel or ignored, because guidelines and reports are less powerful than the people who control industry. The World Health Organization produced a particularly weak set of guidelines on PFAS last year and was accused by more than 100 scientists of being influenced by business. In 2018, Politico leaked emails revealing that the White House had pressured the Agency for Toxic Substances into not releasing a report on PFAS out of fears of a “public relations nightmare”.
While we are just beginning to learn the scale of this decades-long corporate crime, PFAS continue to be produced and put on the market every year. We live in a toxic system; from the air we breathe to the people who are in charge.