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Living Water: A Catholic Social Teaching Perspective on PFOA and Human Rights

Tanner Rolfe is currently a fourth year student at the University of Dayton majoring in mechanical engineering. He has a special interest in kinematic synthesis of mechanical systems, and is currently involved in undergraduate research focused on variable geometry mechanisms. He hopes to continue his education by attending graduate school and aspires to one day earn PE licensure.

Technology and innovation, perhaps more so than any other human endeavors in modern history, have impacted the promotion and safeguarding of human rights. But as the effects of global climate change have become increasingly evident, greater scrutiny has been extended to the environmental repercussions of long-used technologies previously thought to be innocuous, and to the detrimental impact of these repercussions from a human rights perspective.

An example of one such technology is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a synthesized perfluorinated compound (PFC) originally engineered by 3M in 1947 for use in the manufacture of polytetrafluoroethylene (better known as Teflon), which has a wide variety of consumer applications, including waterproof and non-stick coatings. [1] In the early 1960s, PFOA was repurposed for use in the manufacture of aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), a common firefighting surfactant. [2, 3] Due to the strong energy of its covalent carbon-fluorine bonds, PFOA is both highly unreactive and thermally stable, properties that enable the molecule to withstand high temperatures without decomposing. This allows the foam to extinguish hydrocarbon fires by effectively smothering the flammable material and preventing re-ignition. [3]

Because of its extreme chemical inertness, PFOA is highly persistent in the environment, particularly in water, in which PFOA has a projected half-life of greater than 92 years. As a result, PFOA has a high potential to bioaccumulate and biomagnify. Already, PFOA has been detected in human blood samples nationwide, and has even been found as far away as the remote arctic, in polar bear livers. [3]

The exact impact of PFOA on human health is currently poorly understood, but studies conducted in recent decades suggest increased risks of developing kidney cancer, testicular cancer, hormone disruption, elevated cholesterol levels, and pregnancy induced disorders including hypertension and preeclampsia as a result of long-term exposure to PFOA. [4-8] Adverse immunotoxicological effects have also been observed in rodent, avian, reptilian, and mammalian wildlife. Information on whether these effects extend to humans is scarce, but reports have made a probable link between PFOA and at least one common autoimmune disease, ulcerative colitis. [9, 10] The primary method of exposure in humans is ingestion, and because of the chemical’s tendency to proliferate in groundwater, contamination of drinking water sources is of special concern.

While the EPA has officially classified PFOA as an emerging contaminant and has established provisional levels of safety for ingestion, no baseline regulatory standards currently exist. [11] In October 2015, DuPont, one of the nation’s largest producers of PFOA, was found liable for negligence in its handling of the chemical at one of its Teflon production plants, resulting in high level contamination of both municipal and private groundwater sources in West Virginia and Ohio. The ruling was made by a federal jury in a lawsuit against the company by an Ohio woman who developed kidney cancer after drinking the contaminated water. The lawsuit is the first in a series of some 3,500 similar lawsuits. [12]

Teflon plants are not the only point sources of the chemical. PFOA has been detected nationwide in groundwater sources near military and airport fire and crash training sites, where large quantities of AFFF have been used in firefighting training exercises for decades. The U.S. Department of Defense has identified 664 military and civilian fire and/or crash training sites in the United States where AFFF was regularly used. [13] Elevated levels of PFOA or other PFC contaminants have been detected at many of these sites. [11]

Contamination of drinking water by PFOA has already disrupted the lives of many, and though efforts towards phasing out the manufacture and use of PFOA are already underway, the chemical’s persistence and ubiquity ensure the disruption of yet more lives for years to come. Certainly, there is enough evidence of damage to make an ethical argument against the use of PFOA. But what force might an ethical argument have in the context of human rights?

Human rights can be described as minimum, inalienable standards to which all persons are entitled. Commonly cited among human rights statements such as the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights is the human right to health and well-being. [14, 15] Consistent with these democratic canons, the potential threat posed to human health by PFOA could be considered an infringement of this basic right. However, the problem with such “universal” lists of human rights is that they are not international or even trans-cultural, much less universal. Rather, these declarations are representative of an ideal world and are largely unenforceable. In the developed West, access to quality healthcare is often taken for granted; meanwhile, many of the world’s developing nations lack the resources, funds, or political freedom to provide their citizens with even basic healthcare, despite the supposed universality of this entitlement. A stronger foundation upon which to assess PFOA with regard to human rights is needed: such a foundation may be achieved by considering human rights in their capacity as moral laws rather than stipulations.

Belief in human rights necessarily relies on a respect for the moral autonomy of others. To say that one has a right to X imposes a moral duty on others to avoid any action Y that violates or infringes upon X. In this way, rights lend themselves to a legalistic interpretation of moral duty (e.g., I should/should not do Y because it promotes/obstructs X). In her influential essay Modern Moral Philosophy, Anscombe argues that this legal conception of ethics is a result of centuries of Christian influence, which teaches that moral living requires adherence to divine law. Furthermore, says Anscombe, to accept the concept of moral law, one must necessarily believe in God as the ultimate law-giver.16 If we accept the existence of an ultimate law-giver, and call this law-giver “God,” it reasonably follows that human rights, and correlative moral duties, must comport with accounts of God’s moral goodness. One such account is derived from a centuries-long conversation in Catholic Christian theology.

The Catholic Church’s interpretation of God’s moral goodness is embodied by Catholic social teaching, the Church’s philosophy related to individuals and their relationships with others in a larger society, a concept known as social justice. Human rights, as a system of moral duties, are dependent upon social justice. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church acknowledges the connection between human rights and social justice:

The mutual complementarities between rights and duties — they are indissolubly linked — are recalled several times, above all in the human person who possesses them. This bond also has a social dimension: “in human society to one man's right there corresponds a duty in all other persons: the duty, namely, of acknowledging and respecting the right in question.” [17]

Thus, from a Catholic social teaching perspective, we can define a human right as a duty dependent upon the fair and just interactions between ourselves and others promoting the moral good.

One of the key principles of the Church’s teachings on social justice is the idea of the Common Good. In the doctrine, the Common Good is defined as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily.” [17] Moreover, the Common Good, “belonging to everyone and to each person… remains ‘common’, because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it, increase it and safeguard its effectiveness, with regard also to the future.” [17] A related principle is the Universal Destination of Goods, which refers to God’s destination of the Earth and its resources “for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind.” [17]

The Compendium specifies that everyone has an inherent (read: human) right to partake in and benefit from the Common Good and the Universal Destination of Goods. Herein lies the threat posed by contamination of drinking water by PFOA: water is both a natural resource of the Earth destined for use by all of humanity, as well as a constituent of the Common Good. While we may not all agree on what rights should or should not be considered universal, we all uncontestably depend on clean, potable water to survive. We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has equal and fair access to safe water in proportion to their need, and only by working cooperatively within a society that values humanity’s individual and collective dignity can the logistics of such a monumental task be achieved. It therefore stands to reason that any action that impedes or undermines this duty, as the immoderate and improvident use of PFOA does, impinges upon the inherent right of everyone to healthful and unpolluted drinking water.

Since Homo sapiens first learned to use primitive tools, humanity has been faced with the challenge of adapting to the new possibilities offered by technological innovation. But it is all too easy to mistakenly equate technology with progress. We must ultimately heed the moral lessons oversights like PFOA have to teach us, and adapt technology in ways that better ourselves as humans.


[1] Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (US). 2009. Toxicological profile for perfluoroalkyls (Draft for public comment) [Internet]. Atlanta (GA): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service; [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from

[2] Aqueous film-forming foam - U.S. naval research laboratory [Internet]. Washington (DC): United States Naval Research Laboratory; [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from

[3] Environmental Protection Agency (US). 2014. Emerging contaminants - Perflurooctane sulfate (PFOS) and perfluoroctanoic acid (PFOA) [Internet]. Washington (DC): U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from

[4] Barry V, Winquist A, Steenland K. 2013. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) exposures and incident cancers among adults living near a chemical plant. Environment Health Perspectives [Internet]. [cited 2016 May 17]; 121(11-12). Available from

[5] C8 Science Panel. 2012. Probable link evaluation of cancer [Internet]. C8 Science Panel; [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from

[6] C8 Science Panel. 2012. Probable link evaluation of thyroid disease [Internet]. C8 Science Panel; [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from

[7] C8 Science Panel. 2012. Probable link evaluation for heart disease (including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, coronary artery disease) [Internet]. C8 Science Panel; [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from

[8] C8 Science Panel. 2011. Probable link evaluation of pregnancy induced hypertension and preeclampsia [Internet]. C8 Science Panel; [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from

[9] DeWitt JC, Peden-Adams MM, Keller JM, Germolec DR. 2012. Immunotoxicity of perfluorinated compounds: Recent developments. Toxicologic Pathology [Internet]. [cited 2016 May 17]; 40(2):300–311. Available from

[10] C8 Science Panel. 2012. Probable link evaluation of autoimmune disease [Internet]. C8 Science Panel; [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from

[11] Lerner, S. 2015. Special report: Toxic firefighting foam has contaminated U.S. drinking water. The Intercept [Internet]. [cited 2016 May 2017]. Available from

[12] Trowbridge D, Kary T. 2015. DuPont found liable in West Virginia toxic water lawsuit. Insurance Journal [Internet]. [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from

[13] U.S. Department of Defense. 2015. DoD inventory of fire/crash training area sites [Internet]. Arlington (VA): U.S. Department of Defense; [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from

[14] UN General Assembly. 1948. Universal declaration of human rights [Internet]. Paris, France: UN General Assembly; [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from:

[15] UN General Assembly. 1966. International covenant on economic, social and cultural rights [Internet]. New York (NY): UN General Assembly; [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from:

[16] Anscombe GEM. 1958. Modern moral philosophy. Philosophy [Internet]. [cited 2016 May 17]; 33(124):1–19. Available from

[17] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. 2005. Compendium of the social doctrine of the church [Internet]. State of Vatican City: Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from:

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Tanner Rolfe