‘Forever Chemicals,’ Religion, and Family Tragedy in Texas

PFAS do not break down but rather persist indefinitely. It is possible that Dad drank carcinogenic water for most of his life.



Editor’s Note: This excerpt is adapted from Loose of Earth: A Memoir (April 2024) with permission from University of Texas Press. The Environmental Protection Agency announced limits on PFAS in drinking water earlier this month.

A blade of light glances off my grandparents’ white Lincoln. They park at the curb. A torque of despair turns in my stomach at the way Dad draws his mother into his arms. There’s a tumor in Dad’s colon. That’s all anyone knows. Mom has continued to say they’ve caught it early, and Dad has agreed and recovered his nonchalance. But my grandmother’s hands pass over his back and pause.

Mom buzzes with questions about my grandparents’ drive, with particular interest in the conditions of the road.

Author of Loose of Earth Kathleen Dorothy Blackburn (Courtesy/UT Press)

 “How long did it take you?”

“About seven hours,” my grandfather says. “What can I get you all, something to drink?”

I pray against her water monologue. Mom likes to say we have good water; she means our privately filtered system. Our water, she claims, is so pure you can taste what isn’t there. No microbes, no industry pollutants, nor, good Lord, any arsenic or fertilizer runoff. She says city water gives a tell in the skin and teeth, like cigarettes. In time I will understand she is more right than she knows. In the present, I wish that we had something more than water to offer my grandparents. Back in Universal City, they might have sipped sherry from crystal glasses. But now, they follow Dad to the guest room, each with a glass of water. It’s five o’clock somewhere. Not here.

Looking back now from the distance of twenty-five years, I imagine that once inside the guest room, Grandma downed her glass of water and said something like, “That ought to take the edge off.” Humor, rhetorical shrugs, that was the Blackburn way. She would have then set to work placing her folded slacks in the empty dresser. Perhaps her mind darted as it did when she later talked to me about the last year of her son’s life: He’d looked robust as he strode across the yard to greet her. When she took him into her arms, she thought, This has got to be some sick joke. His firm young body, a promise.

As she grappled with the looming details around my father’s health, she clung to a memory of him as boy, a promise that he would outlive her.

In 1971, when Dad was twelve, Bobby ten, my grandparents took the boys on a cross-country road trip from San Antonio to the Grand Canyon. The colonel stopped somewhere in the Southwest to fill the family’s big brown Lincoln. Always a Lincoln. Always an American-made car. Grandma fanned herself with a map in the backseat, while Bobby flipped through the pages of a comic book he’d memorized. Next to the colonel, my father sat up brightly, eyes cobalt and bright as quartz. He pointed to a diner across the highway and asked for money to buy ice cream. Those blue eyes. My grandmother’s were cut of the same crystal. Her mother’s too. Whenever people remarked on the Irish origin of Kennedy, my grandmother’s maiden name, she was quick to mention that her eyes were her mother’s. “From the Danish,” she’d say. But she didn’t tell anyone she was afraid of going blind. Her mother was losing her vision. Worn vessels had opened in her retinas and were leaking blood. Macular degeneration. The condition was hereditary.

Dusk ignited the horizon, a resin line above blacktop. A lighter snapped. Ash whisked through the open window as Grandma watched her son run across the highway to the diner. He held his elbows akimbo, but his gait was smooth, as though he were much older.

My grandmother liked to think she’d also inherited her mother’s resilience. Dorothy Kennedy was born in Racine in 1920. The oldest of five children and the only girl. Little old me, she used to say. Daughter of a salesman, an Irish immigrant, a drunk. Whenever Dorothy heard of people saying they had depression, she scoffed. Depression was using your four-foot-eleven frame to shelter your mother from your father’s vitriol after he’d spent his earnings on whiskey down at a bar called Nick’s. It was lying awake at night in a house in Mansfield, Ohio, just praying you wouldn’t hear his feet stumble up the steps. Drinking wasn’t an addiction. It was a personality, and AA couldn’t cure that. Her father was what they call recovered by the time she brought my grandfather home in 1946 to meet him, but she knew he was still the same man. You don’t recover from who you are. When her father died in 1956, she didn’t attend his funeral.

My grandmother thought of herself as the kind of woman who knew enough to know when you had it good. When, in 1966, Grandpa got stationed at Randolph Air Force Base and they found a place in a suburb outside of San Antonio called Universal City, it sounded right—universal signifying to her not the cosmos but a modern system of highways and underground pipes. Places like Universal City were under development everywhere, their green lawns, strip malls, and good schools manifesting the standardized American dream come true—for a white man with a salary and a family. Twenty miles from downtown San Antonio, Universal City was only 2.7 miles from Randolph Air Force Base, my grandfather’s last station before retirement in 1969. But Universal City could have been anywhere in the United States.

Not everything came up rosy. The war in Vietnam threw its shadow over those early years in Texas. In 1967, a year after they moved to Universal City, a fire consumed the USS Forrestal. The aircraft carrier was stalking Vietnam’s north shore, preparing to attack. Aboard the vessel, young Navy ensign John McCain readied for combat in an A-4 Skyhawk fighter jet. Then a parked F-4 Phantom launched an errant Zuni rocket that struck the Skyhawk’s 400-gallon fuel tank. Petroleum slapped the deck a few feet away from where the future US senator stood. The leaked fuel lit up a path of fire that, in ninety seconds, reached parked jets with pilots strapped inside. Officers on foot scrambled for hand-held extinguishers. The CO2 did little more to stop the fire than their own breath would have done. Inferno trapped the pilots inside their planes. Then the flames detonated at least one 1,000-pound bomb, killing the men who were chasing them. The explosion set off a chain of combustions that blew through the length of the 1,091-foot flight deck and sent half the supercarrier to hell. The conflagration burned for at least seventeen hours, killing 134 sailors and injuring hundreds more.

Never again. The Navy joined forces with the company 3M to develop a new aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) that could stop petroleum fires.

The magic ingredients for the foam were a group of chemicals that had a carbon-fluorine bond—the strongest bond in organic chemistry. Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS) had high electronegativity, low polarizability, and long carbon backbones. These properties made PFAS ideal ingredients for non-stick products. My grandmother didn’t know about PFAS, but she did own Teflon pans and Scotchgard, some of the more famous household items in which PFAS were present.

Though other formulations of AFFF existed, the foam that 3M exclusively developed and sold between the 1960s and 2002 dominated the market. It was created using an electrochemical fluorination process to produce a long carbon chain that reinforced the strong carbon-fluorine bond. Among PFAS, this group, called perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs), were a powerhouse substance. They were highly chemically and thermally stable. They would become some of the most environmentally persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic PFAS on the planet.

Over fifty years later, certain PFAAs, including perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoate (PFOA), and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS), would constitute three of the six forever chemicals targeted for regulation in drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2023 because of their hazardous health impacts. But in the 1960s, 3M branded its foam “Light Water,” as though its presence on the planet would be just as ephemeral and life-giving as those elements.

Petroleum fire had no effect on light water. It was the other way around. Light water spread through fire without disintegrating. The foam resisted heat and every other type of chemical bond. It spread through petroleum fire like a blanket. In some drills, the foam could snuff out flames in less than thirty seconds.

The response to the Forrestal disaster was distilled to acronyms: the DOD contracted with the manufacturer 3M to produce AFFF. Light water was distributed across the nation’s military sites, and PFAS entered the environment on a global scale.

In the decades to come 3M would create so many variants of carbon chains that future toxicologists would only be able to test for a fraction of them. The Department of Defense and 3M would go on to claim there was no way to tie exposure to PFAS to disease, and the EPA would not begin to take steps to set maximum contaminant levels for “forever chemicals” in drinking water sources until 2023. What actually endangered lives? Fuel-fed fire. Now that was an obvious cause and effect, at least to the DOD and industries like 3M. Internal reports on PFAS were locked away in a box.

But the PFAS released into the environment couldn’t be sealed up. They became euphemized as “forever chemicals,” a term one can at least pronounce if not comprehend. The ability of PFAS to repel oil and fire is also what endows them with their durability. The chemicals are described as “forever” because they do not break down but rather persist indefinitely, accumulating in water, sand, soil, and blood. The groundwater surrounding some Air Force sites abounds with PFAS amounts that are three thousand times higher than the federal health limit. It is possible that Dad drank carcinogenic water for most of his life.

Back on the interstate in the Southwest in 1971, a foreboding nudged Grandma to look across the highway.

My father was holding an ice cream cone and waving from the other side of the interstate. He looked far away. Something inside her reached for him. The asphalt between them stretched too wide. The highway swayed, distant and thin, like a telephone wire, and her son perched on it no larger than a bird. His waving hand was a flame flickering on the time line of his life. Sometimes a woman is given God’s view but no power to do anything about it.

A blood vessel ruptured in Grandma’s periphery. A cloud of crimson. A red car careened toward her son with the silence and intent of a meteorite. How long had that rock flown through space before gravity turned it into a four-cylinder bullet? Red is the last color you see before you lose all sight. She leapt from the car and ran toward the highway. She shrieked. To look? To back away? A horn. Her son turned to face it, and she couldn’t help herself: She closed her eyes. There are some things you see but can’t watch. Don’t look at the sun or the dying.

When my grandmother’s eyelids lifted, my father’s hair was dancing in the car’s red wake.