Diving Into the Public Health and Climate Impacts of PFAS

There has been debate at the national level over the past year about regulating Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PFAS are artificial substances that have been used in a vast array of products since the 1940s.  PFAS can be found in thousands of household and personal hygiene products, fire-fighting foams, pesticides, food packaging, even food itself (such as dairy products from cows exposed to PFAS).  PFAS travel easily through the environment and break down extremely slowly.  This can lead to PFAS contamination in public water systems and private wells.  PFAS can also contaminate soil and water near landfills, hazardous waste sites, and any manufacturing or chemical production facilities that use or produce PFAS.

Current research suggests that continual exposure to PFAS can lead to numerous harmful effects on the human body.  Since PFAS do not break down easily, they can accumulate over time in the human body.  PFAS can lead to reproductive issues, delayed development in children, increased risk of certain cancers, increased cholesterol levels, immunosuppression, and interfere with hormones.  Because there are thousands of PFAS, and few of them have been extensively studied, it is difficult to determine precisely how each one impacts human health.[i]

The negative impacts of PFAS extend beyond public health and environmental contamination.  The production of PFAS results in harmful byproducts that worsen the climate crisis.  A recent report from the group Toxic-Free Future used EPA data to determine that a PFAS manufacturing plant in Alabama released approximately 240,000 pounds of HFCC-22 in 2019, equivalent to over one billion pounds of carbon dioxide or driving 125,000 cars each day for a year.  HFCC-22 is a potent greenhouse gas that was banned under the 1987 Montreal Protocol treaty due to its ability to harm the ozone layer.  Unfortunately, a loophole in the Treaty allows factories to release HFCC-22 emissions when they are a byproduct of chemical production.[ii]

Over the past year, the EPA began to take steps to better understand PFAS, and to regulate them in a coordinated fashion.  EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced a new EPA Council on PFAS to study the risks associated with PFAS in April 2021.   In October 2021, the EPA began developing a national PFAS testing strategy that would require PFAS manufacturers to provide relevant data.  And in December 2021, the EPA increased PFAS monitoring in drinking water by publishing a rule that mandates collecting samples for 29 PFAS between 2023-2025.[iii]

The PFAS Action Act of 2021, sponsored by Rep. Dingell (D-MI), would “require the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to designate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980”.[iv]  However, the states are not waiting for the federal government to act – they have also been wading into the PFAS regulation waters.  Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Michigan have legally enforced drinking water standards for PFAS.  Numerous other states have proposed regulations waiting for legislative approval.  Maryland - the home state of Climate First! - had four proposed regulations in the 2022 legislative session.[v] To combat the climate crisis and protect public health, it is critical that the federal and state governments move forward with strong PFAS regulations that are consistent across the nation.  You can visit the Safer States website to learn more about your state’s PFAS regulations and take action to protect your community.

[i] https://www.epa.gov/pfas/our-current-understanding-human-health-and-environmental-risks-pfas

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/16/forever-chemicals-pfas-production-greenhouse-gases-analysis-finds

[iii] https://www.epa.gov/pfas/epa-actions-address-pfas  

[iv] https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/2467/text 

[v] https://www.saferstates.com/toxic-chemicals/pfas/

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