‘Forever Chemicals’ Must Be Regulated as a Class

To protect the health of people, communities and the environment, the toxic fluorinated “forever chemicals” known as PFAS should not be regulated one by one but as a class, more than a dozen scientists, including this author, argue in an article published today in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

The article follows an earlier study by the same group of U.S. and international scientists, as well as a study by other researchers, who called for managing PFAS as a chemical class. After those studies were published, researchers affiliated with the PFAS manufacturer Honeywell International published a commentary arguing that the chemicals their company produces should not be subject to the same level of regulatory scrutiny as other PFAS.

The chemical industry has long opposed the systemic regulation of PFAS as a class. 

PFAS are often called “forever chemicals” due to their extreme persistence in the environment. Over time the potential for harm increases. Studies of newer PFAS suggest that these chemicals act much like the earlier chemicals they were designed to replace, from exhibiting key characteristics of carcinogens to causing many of the same health harms. Yet for hundreds of PFAS produced for commercial use and thousands known to exist, toxicity studies are sorely lacking.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its intent to set drinking water standards for the two most notorious PFAS – PFOA, formerly used to make DuPont’s Teflon, and PFOS, formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard and firefighting foam. Setting legal limits for just these two chemicals will likely take years, even as they contaminate tap water or groundwater at more than 2,000 sites in 49 states. Our research estimates that more than 200 million Americans are exposed to PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.

PFAS are used in hundreds of different products, including everything from textile coatings and food wrappers to guitar strings and printer ink. But data is lacking on Americans’ total exposure to this class of chemicals, and how much harm they are causing to our health.

Chemical manufacturers’ constant refrain is that their chemicals are safe and the regulatory system works. In fact, the chemical regulations system in the U.S. is broken, and fails woefully to protect public health.

In 2019, I argued in Bloomberg Law that PFAS must be regulated as a class because the chemicals never occur alone, but in complex mixtures. In counterpoint, Jessica Bowman of the American Chemistry Council argued: “The science supports the conclusion that today’s PFAS products do not present a significant risk to human health or the environment.”

To illustrate the safety of the new generation of PFAS, she pointed to three studies of PFHxA, a so-called short-chain compound, supposedly safer than long-chain PFAS such as PFOS and PFOA. But the evidence of harm from short-chain compounds continues to grow:

  • In July, the Food and Drug Administration announced a phaseout of 15 food contact material approvals that had relied on PFHxA safety assessments, because of concern for bioaccumulation and harm to human health.
  • In December, higher levels of PFBA, a short-chain PFAS, were found to be associated with increased severity of Covid-19.
  • Solvay’s newer PFAS compounds were discovered across New Jersey, and last month studies were made public indicating that these new chemicals were as toxic and bioaccumulative as those they were meant to replace.

Managing PFAS as a class is a critical step in addressing the PFAS crisis, along with eliminating non-essential uses. Reducing the unnecessary use of PFAS breaks the cycle of ongoing contamination. Lawmakers should prioritize quickly phasing out these unnecessary uses of PFAS.

The EPA should also place a moratorium on approval of new PFAS chemicals and new uses of existing PFAS chemicals. The EPA must also move quickly to regulate PFAS as a class in industrial discharges into the air and water, develop a method to test for PFAS as a class, and set health-protective limits on PFAS in drinking water.

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