New data on 'forever chemicals' prompts calls for more transparency

New data on 'forever chemicals' prompts calls for more transparency
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A recent trove of data on so-called forever chemicals is spurring calls for more transparency around the use of toxic fluids by fracking companies.

One of the people pushing for a new approach is Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences who says the federal government should treat the cancer-linked chemicals like name-brand pharmaceuticals, rather than designating them as untouchable trade secrets.

“So for a certain number of years, the company gets to keep their formulation secret, but at some point it becomes common knowledge,” said Birnbaum, who retired in 2019 after more than a decade overseeing agencies under the National Institutes of Health.

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Birnbaum spoke with The Hill on Tuesday, a day after The New York Times reported that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2011 approved the use of chemicals that can break down into toxic forever chemicals, known as PFAS, in fracking fluid.

The article relied on internal EPA documents, obtained by the advocacy group Physicians for Social Responsibility, that were heavily redacted and did not reveal chemical names, due to confidentiality rules that allow companies to maintain trade secrets.

Birnbaum said those rules are due for an overhaul, in the interest of public and environmental health. 

“Maybe we should begin to think about [them] as being something like a patent on a drug, which after a certain number of years expires — and then you get your generics coming in.”

The internal EPA documents showed that mixes used by drilling and fracking companies to ease oil flow include chemicals that can break down into PFAS, the toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances also known as “forever chemicals.” 

PFAS have contaminated waterways and are key ingredients in an array of common products like nonstick pans, makeup, fast-food containers and waterproof apparel.

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Experts have linked PFAS exposure to kidney, liver, immunological, developmental and reproductive issues. But the EPA has only established “health advisory levels” for the two most well-known compounds rather than regulate the more than 5,000 types of PFAS.

The New York Times article was the first public indication that fracking fluid contains PFAS. And while EPA scientists had urged additional testing, the agency’s internal documents did not specify whether such testing had ever occurred. Redactions of certain information, an EPA spokesman told the Times, were required to protect confidentiality.

“If you had concerns expressed, you would have liked to have seen that there was documentation that they would follow it up — and that didn’t exist,” Birnbaum said, cautioning that any other assumptions about what happened “is just pure speculation.” 

With regard to fracking — a process in which millions of gallons of fluid are pumped at high pressure into the ground — Birnbaum stressed the importance of promoting “total transparency about what’s used.” Such transparency, she said, should apply to every step of the fracking process, including transport and storage of well water, as well as the location of fracking sites.

“There are now quite a number of observational studies in humans showing adverse health impacts on people who live near a frack site,” Birnbaum said, adding that there are indications that “people who are one mile from the well have more effects than people five miles, than people 10 miles, do.”

Even without considering the PFAS component, fracking fluid contains “many nasty compounds,” such as the toxic industrial chemical benzene, Birnbaum said. There are so many such compounds that “it may be difficult to disentangle what compounds are causing what effects in people.”

“And maybe that's not what we should be focused on,” Birnbaum said. “Maybe we should just be focused on the whole process and saying, ‘This process is problematic, as far as human health is concerned.’ ”

Birnbaum went on to say that even if all fracking and drilling activity were to suddenly cease, the impacts of PFAS would persist.

PFAS, she said, are very “sticky molecules” and bond easily to soil — even leaching into the ground from landfills. Problems that stem from PFAS, therefore, don’t really “go away,” she said. And while most research thus far has focused on human exposure from water, Birnbaum stressed that exposure can also come from food — or even from food packaging materials.

Today, companies can remove PFAS from water to an acceptable level through “adsorption to activated carbon, ion exchange and reverse osmosis,” according to Colorado State University researchers. But because these methods don’t result in the complete destruction of PFAS compounds, scientists are pursuing different research avenues. 

Birnbaum praised the states that have already set regulatory levels for PFAS in drinking water, as well as the few that have set groundwater and food packaging regulations. But she said problems remain for those living on the borders of states with varying standards.

The European Union, she added, has called for regulating PFAS as a class and designating the compounds for essential use only, while Denmark last year banned all PFAS in food packaging.

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“It would be kind of sad if we get left behind,” she said.

But as a self-described optimist, Birnbaum said she thinks things are starting to turn around and that the Biden administration will prioritize the establishment of federal PFAS regulations — in large part due to calls for action and awareness of members of the public. 

“Public activity is extremely important,” she said. “The public concern, it does impact how regulations can be set and are set.”