There’s little argument most of us live healthier, longer lives thanks to scientific and technological advancement. But those advancements, like everything, have costs, and those costs are not always borne evenly.
The phrase “better living through chemistry” was a cliché for much of the 20th century. It was a play on the DuPont chemical company’s slogan, “Better Things for Better Living ... Through Chemistry.” But by the time DuPont dropped the “Through Chemistry” part in the 1980s, “better living through chemistry” had taken on an ironic meaning, often to do with recreational drug use, and sometimes a bitter commentary on the chemical waste dumps that were dotting the landscape.
Yes, we really do, overall, experience better living thanks to chemical breakthroughs, but for some the costs are too high.
Residents of Decatur, northwestern Morgan County and northeastern Lawrence County have found this out the hard way, just as the residents of Triana in Madison County did decades ago.
DDT contamination in Triana led to lawsuits and more than a decade of water quality monitoring. The Environmental Protection Agency banned most use of DDT in the early ’70s.
There is no such ban for the chemicals that have been found in Wheeler Reservoir and Lawrence County farmland. But the chemicals known as PFOA and PFOS are the subject of a federal warning. The EPA has set recommended maximum levels for the chemicals in drinking water, maximums some sites locally have far exceeded.
3M Co., which for decades used PFOA and PFOS at its Decatur plant, said in July it would investigate whether the toxins are present in the old Brookhaven landfill, site of the former Brookhaven Middle School and Aquadome Recreation Center. The answer of the preliminary study is yes.
Based on those results, 3M has advised the Alabama Department of Environmental Management it will do more thorough monitoring of the site.
“How many hundreds, really thousands of people have gone across that site with the school being there and the Aquadome being there?” asked Decatur City Councilman Billy Jackson. “We need to get to the bottom of it and see what the final results are.”
But monitoring is just the beginning. PFOA and PFOS are part of a family of chemicals known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment.
At present, the chemicals’ exact health effects are unclear, but they have been linked to diabetes and obesity, high cholesterol, compromised liver function, low birth weight and certain types of cancer.
The old landfill is in the center of a densely populated area. The Decatur Board of Education owns the 15 acres around Brookhaven and the city of Decatur owns the rest. As a result, the contamination is both a potential health threat and an added complication to redeveloping city property.
Residents of Triana finally got some justice. While technically still an EPA Superfund site, the EPA has declared physical cleanup of DDT there complete, and levels of the chemical are drastically lower than when the cleanup began.
Residents of Morgan and Lawrence counties deserve no less. Just because the chemicals are “forever,” doesn’t mean the risks and uncertainty should be, too.