In the mid-20th century, a group of complex, man-made chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) were first produced.1 Experts estimate there may be up to 10,000 of these “forever” chemicals in this family, whose full effects are not yet known.
The most widely recognized are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), both having associations with kidney cancer and testicular cancer.2 The chemicals are linked to endocrine disruption and a host of other health problems in people who live in communities that have heavily contaminated drinking water.
In 2002, 3M agreed to stop making PFOS and in 2005, DuPont began the phase-out of PFOA.3 However, with a little chemical tweak, DuPont and other companies are marketing a new generation with similar structures. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports that studies on these new chemicals also show they have the potential for serious health risks.
The unique chemical properties of PFAS give other structures the ability to repel oil and water, reduce friction and confer temperature resistance.4 The chemicals have been used in aerospace technology, photography, construction, electronics and aviation. They are also found in everyday items like textiles, paper products and nonstick cookware.
Ubiquitous use, delays in reducing use and the known bioaccumulative and persistent effects of the chemicals have produced an environmental problem, largely because some of them can take up to 1,000 years to degrade.5
3 Manufacturers Announce Voluntarily Withdrawals of PFAS
July 31, 2020, the FDA announced that three companies would voluntarily phase out specific short-chain PFAS that are used in food packaging.6 The chemicals are used in fast food wrappers, pizza boxes and to-go boxes.
The announcement followed a literature review by FDA scientists that raised questions of the persistence of 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol (6:2 FTOH). As noted in the press release, a representative from the FDA said:7
“While the findings were from studies in rodents, and at higher doses than we would expect in humans, the data suggest the potential of 6:2 FTOH to also persist in humans from chronic dietary exposure. Further scientific studies are needed to better understand the potential human health risks from dietary exposure to food contact substances that contain 6:2 FTOH.”
Information about the problem is carefully worded, as shown in a portion of the FAQs:8
“The levels of PFAS that have been found in foods from the general food supply, however, are very low and based on the best available current science, the FDA has no indication that these present a human health concern.”
As Fox 10 points out, the phase-out could take several years.9 It will begin January 2021 when manufacturers start a three-year program to reduce and ultimately eliminate sales of all products that contain 6:2 FTOH.10
Once this is completed, they estimate it could take nearly 18 months to sell existing paper products that contain the substances. In other words, the manufacturer has up to 4.5 years to phase it out of production, but it is difficult to predict when the products on the market will no longer be used.
After the products are disposed of, many reach a landfill where the chemicals do not degrade but, rather, can seep into the ground and reach groundwater supplies. Eventually, as the EWG found, this gets into the drinking water.11
Forever Chemical Is Found in Tap Water and Rainwater
Unlike plastic pollution that often visibly creates damage to marine life, PFAS molecules cannot be seen spreading throughout the environment. Data have suggested that PFASs may be rising in remote areas of the Arctic.
In a study from 2010, researchers reported that PFOAs were found in high concentrations in seawater, while PFOSs were clearly evident in wildlife.12 Polar bears and ringed seals in Greenland have shown increasing amounts of the chemicals in their bodies. One of the researchers was on a subsequent team who published an update nine years later, describing their findings of a series of compounds in Arctic wildlife and seawater.13
Dangers in the environment are also reaching your home. The EWG commissioned drinking water tests in dozens of U.S. cities, including rural and major metropolitan areas.14
The results showed that contamination had been recorded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and that both the EPA and the EWG had dramatically underestimated the problem. EWG scientists believe the family of PFAS chemicals may be:15
“… in all major water supplies in the U.S., almost certainly in all that use surface water. EWG’s tests also found chemicals from the PFAS family that are not commonly tested for in drinking water.”
The team collected 44 samples from 31 states. In only one place did the water not contain PFASs. In two other test samples, the level was below that which is believed to pose a risk to human health. PFASs were found in water from Philadelphia, New Orleans, cities in northern New Jersey, New York City suburbs and many other places.
Since PFASs are not regulated by the EPA, water utility companies that independently test for the chemical do not have to publish the results or even report them. Areas with the highest levels in the EWG data set included Brunswick County, North Carolina; Quad Cities, Iowa; Miami, Florida; and Bergen County, New Jersey.
The EWG reports that the EPA was notified of the problem in 2001 and that the agency still has not set an “enforceable, nationwide legal limit.”16
In another water study, scientists analyzed 37 rainwater samples from 30 locations across the U.S. They found at least one of the compounds they were looking for in each of the samples. Although concentrations were low, they were higher than some states had proposed limiting in their drinking water. This highly contaminated rainwater irrigates crops, pollutes lakes and seeps into the groundwater supply.17
Is the Safe Drinking Water Act Broken?
The Safe Drinking Water Act was enacted in 1974 and amended in 1986 and 1996.18 It was supposed to ensure drinking water quality and was used to set national standards to prevent exposure to man-made contaminants.
A recent report in Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) tells the story of drinking water contamination with PFAS through the eyes of Andrea Amico and her family who live in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.19 In 2014, a local paper reported that one of the town’s drinking wells was shut down after contamination had been detected.
The area of town serviced by the well had been built over Pease Air Force Base, where her husband worked and her two children attended day care. In 2015, she and two others co-founded an activist group to help the community get blood tests; they were instrumental in starting a federal health study for people who have been exposed to PFAS.
The blood results revealed her husband and children had high levels of contaminants in their system. Sadly, this is not an isolated event or a new problem. The struggle to regulate water and protect citizens against persistent chemicals began with the presidency of George W. Bush and continues with Donald Trump.
Melanie Benesh is a legislative attorney working with EWG, and since the early 2000s the group has called for limiting two PFAS chemicals. She spoke to a C&EN reporter, saying:20
“This is a multi-administration failure to take action on PFOA and PFOS and on the broader class of PFAS chemicals that may pose health effects. It has taken EPA an extraordinarily long time to do anything.”
In 2018, C&EN reported that the Trump administration had promised to make a decision on the need to control PFOA and PFOS as drinking water pollutants. However, historically, the administration has not been environmentally friendly. If a regulatory determination is made, it would involve another four years of legal steps before the EPA could place a regulatory limit on safe drinking water.
When the Safe Drinking Water Act was amended in 1986, the EPA was required to regulate 25 contaminants every two years. C&EN reports they currently have 90 contaminants being regulated, but they haven’t set any limits since the revision of the Act in 1996.
An investigative report from 2017 published in Politico calls the Act “broken,” listing several reasons it no longer protects citizens.21 The latest update to the Act added a requirement for “complex economic analyses to prove that the benefits of a new regulation justify the costs.” Under the original Act from 1974, “the burden of proof is especially high.”22
The reporter highlights the battle over perchlorate, “the only new chemical the federal government has even attempted to regulate in the past 20 years.”23 Regulation efforts that began under President Bush have not yet been successful.
Is Voluntary Phase-Out a Corporate Accountability Sidestep?
As the FDA applauds the efforts of manufacturers to voluntarily phase out a chemical with “potential human health risks from chronic dietary exposure,”24 the EPA has criminal inquiries under way for the same chemical.25
DuPont was a long-time manufacturer of PFAS and has been accused of creating a fraudulent spin-off company, Chemours, in their effort to sidestep their environmental cleanup liability caused by the manufacturing of Teflon.26 In 2019, Chemours notified the FDA they no longer were selling packaging with 6:2 FTOH. Chemours lawyers spoke to a Bloomberg reporter, saying:27
“The separation agreement was the product of a one-sided process that lacked any of the hallmarks of arm’s-length bargaining. DuPont unilaterally dictated the terms of the separation agreement and imposed them on Chemours.”
Some U.S. states are not waiting for a federal ruling but are taking matters into their own hands. Michigan is planning to start regulating certain PFAS chemicals and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is setting its sights on corporate accountability. Commissioner Catherine McCabe told Think Progress:28
“New Jersey believes that the manufacturers … should be held responsible to the public for the costs and damages of the drinking water contamination and other harmful consequences of their actions and negligence.”
Based on actions large chemical corporations have historically used, could a voluntary phase-out of dangerous and damaging chemicals with a 4.5-year timeline be one way of avoiding or delaying their environmental and health liabilities?
How to Avoid PFAS Chemicals
In May 2015, more than 200 scientists from 40 countries signed a consensus statement called the Madrid Statement. Their focus was on PFAS and they warned about its potentially harmful effects, including associations with liver toxicity, adverse neurobehavioral effects, hypothyroidism and obesity.
The group recommended avoiding any and all products containing PFAS. The EWG “Guide to Avoiding PFCS” lists helpful tips you can follow to avoid these chemicals.29
Consider avoiding clothing pretreated with stain repellant or flame-retardant chemicals and avoid nonstick cookware and treated kitchen utensils. For a list of further suggestions and more information about PFAS, see “Warning: Biodegradable Bowls Contain Toxic Chemicals.”