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Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are a group of thousands of manufactured chemicals widely used by a range of industries and commonly found in a large number of household products.
One common characteristic of PFAS is that they persist in the environment and can accumulate in humans and animals. For this reason, they are often referred to as “forever chemicals.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that most people in the U.S. have been exposed to some PFAS.
The chemicals have been documented in the blood of people and animals around the world, and also have been found to be pervasive in the environment, particularly in areas where manufacturers or other industrial users are actively handling PFAS.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2021 released a spreadsheet of more than 120,000 facilities around the U.S. the regulatory agency fears are handling PFAS.
Researchers have identified the following routes of exposure to PFAS:
- Drinking water — in public drinking water systems and private drinking water wells.
- Soil and water at or near waste sites — at landfills, disposal sites and hazardous waste sites.
- Fire extinguishing foam — used in training and emergency response events at airports, shipyards, military bases, firefighting training facilities, chemical plants and refineries.
- Manufacturing or chemical production facilities that produce or use PFAS — such as oil and gas drilling sites, chrome plating, electronics and certain textile and paper manufacturers.
- Food — such as fish caught from water contaminated by PFAS and dairy products from livestock exposed to PFAS and other foods.
- Food packaging — such as grease-resistant paper, fast food containers/wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes and candy wrappers.
- Household products — such as stain and water-repellent used on carpets, upholstery, clothing and other fabrics, cleaning products, non-stick cookware, paints, varnishes and sealants.
- Personal care products — such as shampoos, dental floss and cosmetics.
Long history of warnings about health risks of PFAS
Environmental and human health experts and advocates have long been critical of the EPA for a lack of research into, and regulation of, PFAS. Researchers, lawyers and environmental and human health advocates have warned about the dangers of PFAS for roughly 20 years, and evidence has come to light showing that companies involved in manufacturing PFAS have known about dangers to human health even longer.
Research has demonstrated that two types of PFAS — Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS), are very harmful to humans and animals.
In 2016, the National Toxicology Program concluded that PFOA and PFOS were a specific hazard to immune system function in humans. U.S. manufacturers have been replacing those types of PFAS with other types, though concerns persist about the replacements.
On Nov. 16 the EPA said it was sending four “draft documents” to its Scientific Advisory Board that contain new data and analyses. The new information indicates that “negative health effects may occur at much lower levels of exposure to PFOA and PFOS than previously understood and that PFOA is a likely carcinogen,” according to the EPA.
PFOA, also known as C8, was a key ingredient in non-stick Teflon products. C8 was originally manufactured by 3M and then by DuPont until the health hazards of the chemical were made public through a class-action lawsuit.
A replacement chemical called GenX was introduced by DuPont in 2009 as a safer alternative to PFOA, but an investigation by The Intercept found that DuPont filed 16 reports with the EPA citing numerous harmful health effects of the chemical on animals, sparking concerns about the safety of the substitute.
A C8 science panel was formed as part of the settlement of a class-action lawsuit approved in February 2005 by West Virginia Circuit Court. That case involved allegations that human health problems were caused by releases of C8 from a DuPont facility in West Virginia.
The science panel was charged with conducting a community study to help evaluate potential links between C8 exposure and any human disease.
The litigation and settlement were largely the work of U.S. lawyer Robert Bilott.
Bilott has spent the last two decades advocating for strict PFAS regulation and corporate accountability for PFAS pollution.
In 2018, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a 852-page review of PFAS health dangers, challenging the EPA’s determination of what the regulator considered safe levels for some of the compounds, finding that exposures could be a threat at many times lower than what the EPA had established.
In October 2021, the EPA released what it described as a “strategic roadmap” aimed at restricting PFAS from being released into the environment.
The plan also is supposed to accelerate the cleanup of existing PFAS contamination. The EPA said highlights of its plan include:
- “Aggressive” timelines to set enforceable drinking water limits under the Safe Drinking Water Act “to ensure water is safe to drink in every community.”
- Timelines for actions involved in the establishment of “effluent guideline limitations,” for nine industrial categories.
- Establishment of a hazardous substance designation under the federal Superfund law that enhances the government’s ability to hold PFAS polluters financially accountable.
- A review of past actions on PFAS taken under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to address those that are insufficient.
- Increased monitoring, data collection and research so that the agency can identify what actions are needed and when to take them.
- A final toxicity assessment for a type of PFAS called GenX used in manufacturing nonstick coatings that has been found in drinking water, rainwater and air samples.
- Continued efforts to address PFAS emissions into the air.
The agency said it will also be increasing investments in research related to PFAS. U.S. President Joe Biden has called for more than $10 billion in funding to “monitor and remediate PFAS in drinking water” among other water system.
The EPA has also been pursuing research into “PFAS destruction technology” and other possible mitigation measures amid mounting evidence of the pervasiveness of the PFAS compounds.
In November Michigan Democratic congresswoman Debbie Dingell introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives proposing to ban PFAS in U.S. food packaging and significantly reduce exposure to the highly toxic compounds. Similar legislation introduced in the last legislative session failed to pass.
PFAS manufacturers have actively lobbied against such laws on the chemicals. U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who sits on the environmental committee and has opposed PFAS legislation, has received at least $60,000 from PFAS producers, according to The Guardian.
Many states have moved to investigate the extent of PFAS contamination, protect residents from PFAS exposures and to hold companies accountable for PFAS pollution.
Here are a few recent actions:
Alabama — PFAS manufacturer 3M agreed to pay local government agencies in Alabama $98.4 million in October in a deal reached through court-ordered mediation over claims that one of the company’s chemical plants polluted the Tennessee River in northern Alabama.
The money is to be used to fund cleanup efforts and reimburse water agencies prior efforts to remediate PFAS from the drinking water. 3M also agreed to pay $12 million to settle a potential class action lawsuit by Alabama drinking water customers.
California – In October, the state enacted new laws that prohibit the use of PFAS in children’s products, ban the sale or distribution of any food packaging that contains PFAS after Jan. 1, 2023 and order that by Jan.1, 2024, labels on cookware must list any PFAS in the product and provide a link or QR code to a webpage that contains more details.
Maine — Maine environmental regulators said in October that they were launching a statewide investigation to identify PFAS contamination sites related to the state’s municipal sludge and paper mills. State lawmakers have earmarked $30 million to test for PFAS and to install filtration systems on contaminated water systems.
The state also said it will assist farmers whose land or water is found to have unsafe levels of PFAS.
Michigan — In October, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive directive telling the state to “use its purchasing power — an estimated $2.5 billion annually” to buy products that do not contain PFAS chemicals.
New Hampshire — The New Hampshire Department of Natural Resources said in November that PFAS contamination was so high in five of its lakes that people should limit fish consumption, particularly children.
North Carolina — In November, North Carolina’s attorney general filed lawsuits against 14 manufacturers of a fire suppressant made with PFAS, asking the court to require the manufacturers to pay for investigations to determine the extent of the pollution damage and clean up the damage, replace water treatment systems and wells, restore damaged natural resources and monitor water quality going forward.
The lawsuits focus on PFAS contamination at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and at an Air National Guard Base.
Oregon — Oregon said in October it would test about 150 drinking water systems across the state to determine levels of PFAS contamination.
Pennsylvania — Pennsylvania regulators in November said they would set enforceable limits on toxic “forever chemicals” in drinking water. Specifically, Pennsylvania officials said they plan to set drinking water limits on the two best-studied of the chemicals, known as PFOA and PFOS.
Originally published by U.S. Right to Know.