Will Congress finally address toxic ‘forever chemicals?’

The haunting folk song refrain, “When will we ever learn?” could apply well to the reckless manufacture of a class of harmful chemicals called perfluoroalky and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS). These chemicals are useful in firefighting foam, water- and stain-proof textiles and many industrial applications. However, they are also known as “forever chemicals” because they never break down in the environment. 

The PFAS that have been well studied are found to contribute to cancer and a host of other health problems. A current worry is that PFAS can suppress the immune system, which may decrease our ability to fight the coronavirus — and PFAS are in all of us.

Brilliant detective work by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and New Jersey scientists recently uncovered a frightening case of PFAS pollution in the northeastern United States. Soil radiating out from a Solvay chemical plant in New Jersey is contaminated with PFAS. The chemicals also travel hundreds of miles on air currents and into neighboring states.  

This latest contamination follows a similar saga in the Cape Fear River, which provides drinking water to hundreds of thousands in North Carolina. As in New Jersey, painstaking scientific sleuthing revealed that one chemical plant had contaminated an entire river system with PFAS. In 2017, Cape Fear Public Water Utility Authority filed a federal lawsuit against the chemical giants DuPont and Chemours, accusing them of “a conscious disregard of and indifference to the rights and safety of others” by polluting water, river sediments, soil and air. The companies had released PFAS into air and water for decades, despite knowing of health risks from such compounds, according to the utility.  

A maddening similarity between the New Jersey and North Carolina incidents is that PFAS used at the chemical plants were found to be toxic and phased out — only to be replaced by chemical cousins with similar structure, function and toxicity. Also, the identity of the replacements — found in air, soil and sometimes even the bodies of the local population — is hidden from the public and the EPA scientists as confidential business information.

The New Jersey contamination story was recently published in Science with little fanfare and accompanied by an excellent commentary that points to the problems in our chemical regulatory system that allowed this to happen once again. In North Carolina, the PFAS chemical (GenX) that replaced the old PFAS contaminant has been found to produce similar negative health impacts as its predecessor. However, in New Jersey, little is known about the health impacts of the replacement Solvay chemicals, and human health studies are beginning in a low-income community near the chemical plant. 

But we shouldn’t have to wait years for the results of human health studies. Scientists tell us that all the chemicals that cause harm in humans were first found to cause harm in animals, and there is already a wealth of animal evidence on PFAS. We know enough about the contamination and harm of PFAS chemicals to act.

The good news is that Sens. Jean Shaheen (D-N.H.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and others are acting. They will be proposing a package of floor amendments to this year’s military budget (NDAA) to help stop PFAS contamination. These include the listing of some PFAS as hazardous substances; reimbursing communities harmed by releases or leaks of PFAS by the military; and making the polluters pay by authorizing the military to recover the costs of damages from the chemical manufacturers.

Also, this week both senators and Reps. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) and Mike Turner (R-Ohio) will introduce bicameral legislation to protect military men and women from the harm of PFAS in products they use every day — furniture, carpeting, food packaging and even dental floss. Reducing the use of products containing PFAS will reduce production and contamination of our land and water. 

Aligning with this legislation, on Tuesday I’m joining 15 international scientists in publishing a peer-reviewed article in Environmental Science & Technology Letters laying out how government and business can apply a class-based approach to reduce harm from the entire class of PFAS. Our paper makes the case that we need to stop moving from one harmful PFAS to the next — as has happened in both North Carolina and New Jersey — and that PFAS chemicals should only be used when essential. 

It’s great to see legislation aligning with the science on PFAS this week. Perhaps we are at long last starting to learn not to repeat the same toxic mistakes over and over again. 

Arlene Blum, PhD is the founder and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and a research associate in Chemistry at the University of California in Berkeley, California.

Tags Cancer chemical spill Congress Elissa Slotkin Environment EPA forever chemicals health hazard Immune system Mike Turner PFAS Pollution toxic chemicals

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