PFAS: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver | Transcript

John Oliver discusses PFAS — a class of chemicals linked to an array of health issues — and why their widespread use isn’t as magical as it may seem.
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PFAS: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 8 Episode 25
Aired on October 3, 2021

Main segment: Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances
Other segment:
Guest:
Danny DeVito

* * *

♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ [Cheers and applause]

John: Welcome, welcome, welcome to “Last Week Tonight”! I’m John Oliver. Thanks so much for joining us. Just time for a quick recap of the week, in which the U.S. surpassed 700,000 Covid deaths, R. Kelly was found guilty, and there was a gas crisis in the U.K., thanks to a Covid-induced shortage of truck drivers exacerbated by Brexit. It caused massive panic buying, but also, this incredible moment:

♪ Queueing for petrol ♪
♪ queueing for petrol ♪
♪ queueing for petrol ♪
♪ but I’m on a horse ♪
♪ I’m on a horse ♪
♪ I’m on a horse ♪
♪ I don’t need petrol ♪
♪ ’cause he runs on carrots ♪

John: I mean, that is just excellent. Taunting people waiting for petrol in their stupid cars by singing your horse runs on carrots is objectively hilarious. Although I will say, while, yes, horse owners don’t need petrol, it’s also true that car owners don’t have to clean up their vehicle’s enormous shits. So the grass is always greener. But let’s focus on the events in congress this week. For a start, the senate held a hearing on Facebook and Instagram’s impact on teenagers’ mental health, a very important issue. But one that prompted this remarkable question posed by senator Richard Blumenthal:

Will you commit to ending finsta?

Senator, again, let me explain, we don’t actually do finsta. What “finsta” refers to is young people setting up accounts where they may want to have more privacy.

Finsta is one of your products or services. We’re not talking about Google or Apple. It’s Facebook, correct?

Finsta is slang for a type of account. It’s not a product.

Okay, will you end that type of account?

We — I’m not sure I understand exactly what you’re asking.

John: Yeah, of course you don’t. ‘Cause what he just asked you made no sense. And even Blumenthal’s aide seems aware of that, as he visibly winced in pain immediately after hearing it. That is the expression of someone who knows they’re going to have to stay late tonight explaining to their boss, yet again, what “finsta” is, but also what Twitter is and why he’s currently getting roasted on it. But the real drama this week concerned the fate of the Build Back Better Act — a key part of Biden’s agenda, projected to cost $3.5 trillion over ten years, with democrats intending to pay for it through increased taxes on the wealthy. It contains, among other things, funding for at-home care, universal pre-k, free community college, steps to address climate change, expanded Medicare, and an extension of the child tax credit — which alone is estimated to mean 4.3 million fewer children in poverty. It is a big deal and would make this country a better place. But there’s a problem. Because to pass the bill, democrats are using something called “reconciliation” to evade a filibuster, which requires the support of every single democratic senator. And unfortunately, moderates like Kyrsten Sinema and JoeManchin argue it costs too much. Now, to counter that, progressives have said they’ll oppose the bipartisan infrastructure bill — which Manchin and Sinema want — unless the larger bill is guaranteed to pass alongside it. And if all of this seemed chaotic, Jen Psaki attempted to reassure reporters it was all part of the process:

This is why we all came to Washington. It’s like an episode of a tv show. Uh, we’re — we — I — I’m not in a position to look in a crystal ball here.

Which tv show?

Maybe “the west wing” if something good happens, maybe “veep” if not, I’m not sure.

John: Yeah, of course you want to be “the west wing.” Every administration wants to be “the west wing.” Why wouldn’t they? It’s American fan-fiction written by a man drunk on liberal righteousness and weapons-grade cocaine. Unfortunately, though, this white house might be more of a “Mr. Robot,” in that I’m not sure even the people involved know exactly what’s going on, and unless they’re careful, it might stop after four years. Although I will say this, to Biden’s credit, he seems, so far, to be siding with the progressives, or at the very least, not selling them out. Which makes sense — the bill contains policies he ran on, and its contents are broadly popular. But Sinema and Manchin seem unmoved. Injure his case, he wasn’t even moved with those making it in person this week. Paddling out to his boat in kayaks to hear him explain why he’s holding things up.

We want to get a good bill that’s a balanced bill, that’s well done. And I know it won’t be enough for some, it’ll be too much for others. In West Virginia, you know, West Virginia’s a little bit different than it used to be.

There’s a lot of poverty. What are you gonna do for the poor in West Virginia?

We’re working — we’re going to be doing everything we can to create good opportunity.

John: Wow. I’m not sure which stage of capitalism we’ve reached if we’re now “kayaking out to a politician’s yacht to beg him to help the poor,” but it’s gotta be one of the last ones. I’m pretty sure it goes ocean on fire, bookstore billionaire leaves the planet, then boat bitch says no, and then it is basically all over at that point. But I will say, at least Manchin’s actually engaging with people. Kyrsten Sinema has been much more evasive. She’s made a name for herself as trying hard to be “the fun one” in the senate, dressing here like a Powerpuff Girl in witness protection. But it’s been a lot less fun this week watching her turn basic questions about her bargaining position into a shitty game.

What do you say to progressives that are frustrated they don’t know where you are?

I’m in the senate.

John: Oh, fuck right off. And it gets worse. When that reporter asked her a second time, she said “I’m clearly right in front of the elevator.” Which is about as maddening as when you tell your dad “I’m hungry” and he says “nice to meet you, hungry. I’m dad.” I mean, yeah, you technically “got me” and you certainly have a playful way with words, but I’ve got a fucking problem that you’re supposed to solve. And that evasiveness may have reached its peak when she took off in the middle of negotiations for Arizona, where she attended a fundraiser at a high-end resort and spa in phoenix last night. And amid all of the frustrations with Sinema, her supporters have tried to cast her eccentricities as an asset, with one saying, “she doesn’t think in a linear process, like ‘okay, will this impact my re-election?’ She just beats her own drum. When she leaves in the middle of something and says, ‘i got stuff to do,’ it’s because she has plans. Sometimes, she’s just more interested in training for an ironman. More power to her, man.” Except, here’s the thing, no, not more power to her. Because that’s one of her own supporters telling you she’s impossible to understand, doesn’t think in a linear process, and wanders off in the middle of a conversation. And it’s not great when a senator’s strengths are how I would describe any cat. Those qualities, in a civilian, might make you a fun eccentric, but when you’re a senator, it just makes you bad at your fucking job. Look, this bill could materially benefit people’s lives. And if you are blocking it, you owe people more than vague platitudes shouted from a boat, and a cutesy “I’m in the senate” comment. Because if these two keep this shit up, their window for saying “I’m in the senate” may rapidly be closing. And now this.

* * *

Announcer: And now, newscasters take issue with the term “leaf-peeping.”

We are going leaf-peeping.

Leaf-peeping. A little creepy be.

Leaf-peeping.

I’ve always thought it sounds a little pervy. That’s what they call it.

It’s weird, right?

A beautiful time.

I find leaf-peeping to be just mildly disturbing.

I still say it sounds a little dirty.

Get your leaf-peeping on.

Leaf-peeping. I’ve never said that before. First ten.

It’s the type of peeping that’s legal.

That’s —

That’s the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard. I’ve never heard anybody call at that.

Except for the producer that rotates.

[Laughter]

* * *

John: Moving on. Our main story tonight concerns chemicals. The substances that, along with spaghetti, Heineken, and human arms, should never be kept in a vat in your neighbor’s garage. Specifically, we’re going to talk about a particular class of chemicals called PFAS, which stands for “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.” They go by a wide variety of chemical names like all of  these, and are used by recognizable brands like gore-tex and teflon, among many others — but the main thing they have in common is that they make surfaces that don’t get stuff stuck to them, which is something a lot of us care about. Although, arguably, some more than others:

Missy!

Yes, chef.

If you sauté scallops in a nonstick pan, they won’t stick. That’s why it’s called fucking non-stick! I don’t know what “non-stick” means in Texas, sweetheart, but fuck me.

John: You know, as tempted as I am to mock Gordon Ramsay, as a British person who has also inexplicably made a career out of shrieking obscenities at Americans and not understanding Texas, game has no choice but to respect game. And while I scream, you scream, he screams, we all scream for non-stick pans, there’s just two big problems here: first, these chemicals have been linked to a massive array of health issues. High exposure to these two major PFAS alone have been linked to high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, testicular and kidney cancer, and decreased response to vaccines. Which is clearly terrible, although also shouldn’t be that surprising, seeing as the original name for this show was “that thing you like is bad with saddy longlegs.” And second, PFAS are what’s known as “forever chemicals” — studies have estimated they have lifetimes in the thousands of years. And that combination of toxicity and longevity is a real problem, as one chemical engineer tried to explain to congress a few years back.

It doesn’t go away. This is a manmade chemical. We just pass the baton to our generations of kids. In fact, if you were to incinerate and cremate me, I would technically be a fluorochemical hazardous source. The teflon mesh that is used in my hernia produces a very toxic gas and decomposes to something called devil’s piss, which is hydrofluoric acid. You can’t kill this beast. You can only control it.

John: Yeah, that doesn’t sound great, does it? Also, it’s hard to believe there’s something called devil’s piss that isn’t Gordon Ramsey’s very real line of alcoholic sparkling water, “Hell’s Seltzer,” which you can apparently get in flavors such as mean green, berry inferno, knicker twist, and that’s forked. Hell’s Seltzer: for people who hate water and themselves. But that man is absolutely right. To an extent you may not currently realize, the world is basically soaked in the devil’s piss right now. And not in a remotely hot way. So tonight, we thought we’d take a look at just how bad these substances are, how long some of their major manufacturers knew about it, and how hard this will all be to fix. And let’s start by looking at one of the most ubiquitous PFAS: PFOA, also known as C8 because of its eight carbon molecules. 3M started selling C8 back in 1951 to the chemical giant Dupont, which then used it to make teflon, which it marketed through ads like this:

I used to be a slave to scraping and scrubbing pots and pans. But I’ve been liberated by teflon. Food doesn’t stick to teflon like it does to other things. See?

John: Okay, “I used to be a slave” is just not something that should be coming out of a white child’s face unless it’s Pinocchio after he becomes a real boy, and even then, he’s still not “really” free, is he? He’s a slave to society and a prisoner of his own mind, just like the rest of us. Your nose might not be growing any more, gnocchi, but make no mistake — you are lying to yourself. But the thing is, by the time that ad aired, 3m and Dupont already knew that these chemicals accumulated in humans and animals, that they didn’t degrade in the environment, and that they could increase the size of the liver in rats, rabbits, and dogs. So the warning signs were very much there before they had a white child slave claim teflon liberated her from the back-breaking labor of scraping muffin trays. And in the decades that followed, they learned even more. In 1981, 3m found that ingestion of PFAS caused birth defects in rats, and when they told Dupont about this and Dupont then tested the children of employees in their teflon division, they found that, of seven births, two had eye defects — information that, interestingly, Dupont did not make public. And by 1991, it had gotten unambiguous warnings that it then spectacularly ignored.

3M told Dupont that under no circumstances should you put it in waterways. It’s right there in the document. Don’t put this in the waterways. But at the end of the day, they start dumping so much C8 into the water that they, at one point, lose track of how much they’ve actually put out there.

John: Wow. Harmful chemicals are not something you should “lose track of.” They’re not your car keys or your middle child. Oh, oh, I’m sorry, I lose him in a supermarket “one” time and suddenly “I’m” a bad parent? Calm down. It’s not like he was gonna run out of food. But wait, it gets even worse. Two years after that, in 1993, a Dupont company memo shows that for the first time, they had a viable candidate to replace C8 — one that appeared to be less toxic and stayed in the body for a much shorter duration of time. But the company decided against it, because the risk was too great — specifically, the risk to their bottom line, and the fact that teflon products were worth roughly a billion in annual revenue to them, proving once and for all corporations truly are people — specifically, sociopaths. And yet despite knowing all of that, Dupont kept pushing for teflon to be used in more and more places. And in this ad from 1994, they basically present it as being wizardry.

Chemistry is the — is the practice of magic. People think of teflon and they think of frying pans. Teflon is not one thing. Putting teflon on a surface will stop bugs from crawling up trees. They’ll fall right off the tree. Teflon is a chain loop, it’s something I’ve come up with for bicycles. You know, only Dupont makes teflon, but you can use it in satellites, on fabrics, or leather. When’s the last time you heard about a leather raincoat? You can let your imagination run wild it’s not often you get to put something new in the world.

John: Okay, there’s a lot I don’t understand about that ad, including why it was shot by someone who’s still testing out the zoom function on their camcorder or why that Incel Santa giggled so menacingly at the idea of a nonstick leather raincoat. Although I will say, if that’s his bar, it does seem pretty easy to make something new in the world. I’ll show you: leather umbrella, leather flower, leather snake, and leather Elmo. That is four great ideas I just came up with, and I’m not even a PhD in a Cosby sweater. And if you’re wondering where the EPA was in all this, you should know, they were more than a little hamstrung here. Under the 1976 toxic substances control act, the EPA can require testing for chemicals only when it’s been provided evidence of potential harm — a setup “which largely allows chemical companies to regulate themselves.” Which is an absolutely terrifying sequence of words right up there with “incoming facetime from Jeffrey Toobin.” Nobody wants to hear that. And even when the EPA has taken steps, they’ve been pretty limited. For instance, in 2016, they issued a health advisory for two of the biggest PFAS — including C8 — setting an “acceptable level” for them in drinking water of 70 parts per trillion, which, incidentally, a lot of people still think is too high. But also, crucially, an EPA health advisory is non-enforceable. All and no one is going to respect a rule if it’s not enforced. It’s like one of those signs everyone sees but ignores, like “please take one” on a candy bowl or “please, no sculpture fucking” at Madame Tussauds. I’m doing it. I’m taking two fun-size snickers bars, and then I’m gonna fuck wax Michael Buble. I’m doing it. It’s already done. Get over it. And that lax level of oversight, combined with dumping on a scale so high they “lose track” of it, has had severe consequences. When epidemiologists studied the medical history of people who lived near a Dupont plant, they found residents with higher exposure to drinking water contaminated with C8 had much higher rates of kidney and testicular cancers. And it was even worse for the people working inside the facilities — as this man, who worked in one of Dupont’s testing labs, and has been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and rectal cancer, can attest.

People would handle that product on the job, every day, day in, night out, and then we went to 12-hours shifts, at 12 hours at a time, we heated it and breathed it every day. Ken worked on a four-man team at Dupont’s plant testing C8 between 1974 and 2001. Of the four, he is the only one still alive.

The people I loved, they died. We were like a family.

John: Look, that is clearly awful. But you don’t actually have to live in a town where PFAS are dumped, or work in a factory that makes them, to be affected. Remember, PFAS last a long time, so if they sink into the groundwater or are released into the air, they can travel. And they can bioaccumulate, meaning they build up in your body over time. And that brings us to a shocking discovery. Because in the 1970s, Dupont and 3m started testing workers to check the levels of PFAS in their blood. And 3m wanted a control group with “clean blood” so they’d have a baseline. But as this environmental activist points out, the company quickly realized something truly horrifying.

There was no clean blood. They tested kids, they tested adults, they went to Asia, they went all over the world and everywhere they looked, practically, they found their chemicals in people’s blood. Eventually, they did find some clean blood. It turned out it was the blood that had been taken from army recruits and archived, saved, at the start of the Korean War.

John: Yeah, it’s true. In fact, a CDC study has found that C8 is now in the blood of 99.7% of Americans. Meaning, at the very least, Vin Diesel and I finally have something in common. Every single thing about our genetic makeup, general attitude, and vocal timbre is dramatically different, but when it comes to toxic chemicals in our blood — it’s potato, potahto, my friend. Or should I say, my family. And while Dupont may be a particularly stark example, they’re far from the only entity involved here. The military uses PFAS in foam to extinguish fires, so they’ve built up around military bases. And many companies have used a lot of PFAS in a lot of their products. For instance, a shoe company called Wolverine used PFAS in its waterproof hush puppies. But it was only after local reporting that residents near its factory in Belmont, Michigan, knew to get their water tested — and for one family, the McNaughtons, the results were pretty striking. And before you watch this, remember: the EPA’s acceptable level in drinking water is 70 parts per trillion.

They lived in their house about three years when Tobyn learned she was pregnant with their son, Jack.

We were really excited. I wanted that to go really well, so I drank eight glasses of water a day. I, like, kept track. I ate really healthy.

In April of 2016, Jack was born.

He had an immense appetite for water. He was thirsty all the time.

Test showed almost 2,000 parts per trillion of PFAS in the McNaughton’s water. As soon as they could, Tobyn and Seth had Jack’s blood tested. The results — 484,000 parts per trillion, more than 100 times the national average.

He’s the highest level of PFAS that we know right now of any child in the United States. He gets sick more often and his vaccinations haven’t worked.

John: Wow, that is incredible. Usually when your child is the highest in something, your instinct is to brag about it, but good luck finding a bumper sticker with “my child has the highest level of PFAS in the United States.” Nobody wants that shit. And look, I have to tell you: Wolverine says it’s moved to fix the problem for homeowners in that area, although you should know, it is just not a simple thing to go about doing.

This is what I affectionately call Megatron — my whole home filter, this right here. But it goes through each of these tanks — these are full of granulated carbon and it goes through them in order and then comes out this one and is clean. So every week they come and test it at the intake and then also at the exit so that we know that the water is empty of that.

John: Oh, great news! You did it, Wolverine! Problem solved. All it takes is a four-tank system affectionately nicknamed “Megatron,” a spare room large enough to house it, and a weekly visit from a tank technician for the rest of your life. Water problem? More like “what’s your problem?” This is a system that works. But clearly, a Megatron in every home is not a viable solution for this or, indeed, any problem. And maybe because of that — and definitely because of a court-approved settlement — Wolverine has since gone to the trouble and expense of switching that woman from her tainted well water to the municipal water supply. And yet, many companies are continuing to do the bare minimum here or even trying to evade responsibility. Dupont, for instance, settled a class-action lawsuit with residents of the town where it was dumping C8, and, shortly afterward, agreed to eventually phase out using the chemical. Which sounds good. But there are some significant asterisks on that. Because while they did stop using C8, they simply switched to a different kind of PFAS, something called “Gen-X,” spinning the manufacture of it off into a separate company, Chemours. Now, did they do that so that any legal liability wouldn’t stick to them, and instead, slide right off them like bugs on a teflon tree? Who can say? Apparently not me, legally. What I can say is that, while Chemours claims Gen-X is safer, scientists still have significant concerns about its presence in the water supply.

This is, in my view, more of a risk than we should be forced to take. This compound’s a member of a class of compounds that are all thought to be able to make people sick with cancers of various kinds, other kinds of dysfunction. We don’t know the full extent of it.

So, with what these scientists do know, we ask them if they think the water is safe enough to drink.

Nope. I drink tequila straight, but I won’t drink the tap water.

John: Well, that doesn’t sound good. If casual Friday scientist over here won’t drink the tap water, there might be some cause for alarm. And while we’ve just focused on a handful of individual PFAS tonight, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of them. So the problem is, if and when gen-x is eventually found to be harmful, companies can presumably just move on to another one, then another one, and so on. And so on. And at this point, you might be thinking, “holy shit, this is absolutely terrible. Should I start immediately throwing away all my pans?” Well, I’ll start with the good news: Meghan McCain is no longer on “the view.” This rock looks like cookie monster. And no, you don’t necessarily need to throw away all your pans. Experts say that it’s very unlikely PFAS will be released if the pans aren’t overheated or scraped. Now, you’re under slightly more risk of exposure from clothing that contains PFAS — which is, unfortunately, most stainproof or waterproof fabrics, including certain items from companies like Lululemon, North Face, and Patagonia — or, indeed, from food wrappers that contain PFAS, which are, unfortunately, used by multiple chains, including some of the packaging at Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, and Subway. And all these companies insist they’re working to remove PFAS from their products completely in the coming months and years, and I hope that that’s true. But we have heard things like that before, and yet, here we fucking are. And it’s not like it’s easy to know which products you’re buying do and don’t contain PFAS. It’s not like they have to carry labels stating, “this product contains devil’s piss,” although that’s actually a very good idea, and they should absolutely have to do that. But the bigger issue is, no matter how responsible consumers choose to be, if the factory that makes the chemicals doesn’t dispose of its waste properly, it’s likely getting into your bloodstream anyway. Which is pretty frustrating, as the activist you saw earlier points out:

No one said, “hey, you know, I’m good with a little teflon chemical in my baby’s blood.” No one said that. They said, “I love these pans.”

John: Exactly. No one loves pans so much that they’d be willing to put poison in their baby’s blood. Well, to be honest, one person does but, in his defense, the pans don’t fucking stick! Now, if you’re worried about what the water is like where you live, you can go to this address, ewg.org/PFASmap, and if you don’t like what you see, you can consider solutions like drinking bottled water, or using a reverse osmosis filter. But the truth is, it shouldn’t just be on us as individuals. Because the truth is, PFAS shouldn’t be in most consumer products at all. And as companies seem unlikely to all take them out voluntarily, we badly need legislation limiting their use to only essential items, like certain medical devices and protective clothing. But not just that — we need to change the way we regulate PFAS completely. Instead of regulating them one at a time, as we do now, we should do it as an entire class of chemicals. This would enable the EPA to more effectively regulate not just the PFAS already in use, but replacements like gen-x when they’re introduced. And in the meantime, if companies are going to keep leaning in on the convenience of their products without acknowledging the cost, maybe we can help them, by providing their ads with some much-needed context.

Chemistry is the practice of magic. Like abracadabra, zonks, wizardry. People think of to have fun and they think of frying pans. Bake hot plates with smooth long sticks. Teflon is not one thing, it’s disease, sickness, and its fucking everywhere. Cut out. You know I’m self-conscious about the mouth. You know about that. Did you say yes or no. Putting PFA is on the surface — you know I’m self-conscious about the mouth and everything, the close up stuff, and the spitting? You say it’s going to be a normal shoot? Focusing on — I put PFAS on a bicycle chain. Why? Because I suffer from chronic insomnia. Probably got it from PFAS. And they are everywhere. The same chemicals that are in me are in you, and even in your child. I put something in your child! And if this stuff gets into water, that’s the real bippety-boppety magic. It’s incredible! When was the last time you heard about a leather jacket giving you kidney cancer? [Laughs] you can let your imagination run wild. Mine is running right now. It’s not often you get to put something toxic in the world. ♪ ♪

John: that’s our show. Thank you so much for watching. We’ll see you next week. Good night!

Okay, okay. Can I say it with a British accent? No? You know I’m self-conscious about my little mouth. You said this would be a normal shoot. That’s a terrible British accent, but I’ll do it anyway. You know I’m self-conscious about my little mouth. He said this would be —

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