3 Toxic Chemicals That Were Sold to the World as Harmless

3 Toxic Chemicals That Were Sold to the World as Harmless
3 Toxic Chemicals That Were Sold to the World as Harmless

Chemicals are naturally occurring elements or compounds in the earth and the sea. Various natural chemicals like mercury, lead, arsenic, etc., were discovered around the 1800s. At the time, the process of synthesis was unknown to man. 

In 1937, Emilio Segre and Carlo Perrier broke all records by developing the first-ever manmade chemical – technetium. Since then, artificial chemical production has not ceased. In fact, the Department of Toxic Substances Control states that there are nearly 85,000 manmade chemicals used for industrial and commercial purposes. 

Some of these chemicals’ structures are so complex that they cannot be broken down as easily as they are produced. What’s most alarming is that certain synthetic chemicals are toxic to human health and the environment. Yet, they were/are commercialized as harmless. In this article, we will discuss three such chemicals in detail. 


Short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS is a group of over 12,000 chemicals produced since the 1940s. Two of the most studied chemicals among PFAS, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) were manufactured by 3M in the 1950s. 

These chemicals had unique properties, mainly resistance to water, oil, and grease. This is why they were used in a wide variety of consumer products, including stain-resistant upholstery, non-stick cookware, and food packaging. 

Their low viscosity made them an important ingredient in Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) or Class B firefighting foam. To some extent, even firefighting turnout gear was lined with these chemicals. Since the time of their early production, manufacturers were aware of health risks. 

Nonetheless, PFAS were marketed as safe and effective in waterproofing and firefighting. Decades later, the true nature of these chemicals was known as firefighters developed life-threatening conditions like cancer. 

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed other health effects of regular exposure to PFAS, including reproductive defects, developmental delays in children, high risk of cholesterol, and reduced immune response. In 2017, firefighters sued the manufacturers of PFAS. 

The AFFF lawsuit gradually branched into two categories – personal injury cases filed by firefighters and water contamination cases filed by municipalities. The defendants with 3M in particular made several attempts to turn the litigation in their favor. However, all water contamination cases were resolved with a settlement of $10.3 billion in June 2023. 

As per TorHoerman Law, the litigation has currently moved towards pretrial proceedings for personal injury cases. The Judge is also looking into a separate class of lawsuits involving Telomere-based AFFF. By the end of this year, some solid progress is expected in this litigation. 

Besides the damage already done, fears circulate that PFAS are here to stay. 3M has promised to stop producing these chemicals by 2025 year end. However, PFAS cannot be broken down easily in the environment or the human body. It could take decades before partial remediation takes place. 


PCBs are short for polychlorinated biphenyls. These are also a group of synthetic chemicals that have a distinct yellow color, but no odor or taste. Due to their stable chemical composition and non-flammability, PCBs were used in various products, including paint, plastics, electrical equipment, cable insulation, etc. 

PCBs were initially synthesized in the 1880s, but their commercial production started only in 1929. The manufacturing of these chemicals was completely and permanently banned in 1979 in light of their toxic nature. 

As per the National Ocean Service, nearly 1.5 billion pounds of PCBs were produced between 1929 and 1979. Before their ban, these chemicals seeped into the soil, entered the air, and intruded the water bodies. Wastes from PCB manufacturing were often dumped in regular landfills. 

Even in the 1960s, the situation was so bad that PCB traces were discovered in people across the world, including the Arctic. These chemicals could also lead to cancer, reproductive issues, cardiovascular disease, liver damage, and diabetes. Unlike PFAS, PCBs can break down but it depends on their chemical composition. 

Despite their ban decades ago, traces can be found in buildings constructed between 1929 and 1979. Municipalities have sued PCB manufacturer, Monsanto/Bayer, alleging that the company was aware of the risks but failed to sound the alarm. Up until now, millions have been paid in settlements for individual cases. 


Having low water solubility, VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are another class of manmade chemicals used extensively since the 1940s. The EPA states that they were used in solvents, paints, pharmaceuticals, and refrigerants. 

Direct exposure to VOCs can be harmful, causing liver damage, kidney failure, and issues with the central nervous system. These chemicals are even capable of causing cancer, as was clear from the infamous Camp Lejeune water contamination tragedy. 

Three water supply tanks across the Base – Tarawa Terrace, Hadnot Point, and Holcomb Boulevard – were polluted with VOCs like trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene. Residents at the Camp used the toxic water for internal and external purposes for nearly three decades. 

Later, it was found that even 30 days of exposure could cause conditions like cancer, Parkinson’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, aplastic anemia, etc. Though VOCs have enjoyed considerable industrial usage, their toxicity raises concerns. 

The victims of Camp Lejeune have filed litigation against the government, but VOC production must be strictly regulated (if not banned). 

According to the European Environment Agency, chemical production has increased 50 times since 1950. At this rate, it is safe to assume that new chemicals are developed and registered every day. 

It appears that chemical manufacturers are placing no restraints on their curiosity and desire to invent. If it continues, there is no telling about how bleak the future would become. 

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