PFAS, also known as man-made or forever chemicals, are the latest addition to the long list of environmental scapegoats. In a hunt for a quick fix, the United States have chosen the path moving towards a complete PFAS ban. A diverse group of over 4000 chemicals, all PFAS–regardless of their individual risks, benefits, and availability of substitutes–could be outlawed.
The PFAS Action Act was introduced in April last year. It was passed in the lower chamber in July and is now sitting with the Senate. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a sponsor of the Bill, called PFAS “an urgent public health and environmental threat.” According to Dingell, “PFAS is causing cancer, infertility, thyroid problems, and a host of other health issues.” This mirrors the rhetoric of Pennsylvania congressional delegation members Madeleine Dean and Mary Gay Scanlon. Both Democratic congresswomen have emphasized the link between PFAS and various diseases, such as cancer as well as their presence in the blood of Americans. Overreaction–not evidence–drives the US PFAS legislation. The assumption behind such an approach is that PFAS as a group carry equal risks.
This view is primarily mistaken because PFAS have a wide array of uses, and, depending on the environment, they break down differently. The regulators should only resort to bans, where the evidence about risks associated with PFAS is solid. PFAS can be found in household items and other consumer products, medical equipment, food packaging, and more. Water, acid, and oil resistance are some of the main features making PFAS hard to substitute. Surgical gowns, curtains, and floor coverings that contain PFAS help protect doctors from infections during surgeries. PFAS also play a key role in cell phone production. A smart way to approach PFAS would be to assess them individually. This would allow us to identify those chemicals that pose a significant risk to our health and wellbeing and introduce regulation accordingly.
In December 2021, the Australian National University published a groundbreaking study on PFAS. The findings provide some helpful insights into what anti-PFAS efforts should focus on. To assess the risks associated with PFAS, three PFAS-contaminated Australian communities were chosen. One of the key findings was that exposure to PFAS in impacted communities almost entirely comes from water and firefighting foam. Those who drink contaminated water, or eat locally grown food that is contaminated, are at the highest risk of PFAS-associated health problems. This suggests that production, specifically poor production processes, carries most of the risk, while the risks associated with consumer items and other PFAS applications are non-existent.
Other findings include the increased PFAS-induced anxiety, which is not necessarily consistent with evidence-based risks of these chemicals. People who thought they had been exposed report symptoms that are entirely unrelated to PFAS. That is not surprising given the number of times PFAS have been presumably linked to multiple health problems.
The connection is weak though. While the Australian study found that PFAS exposure (PFOA and PFOS) increased higher cholesterol, other risks have not been confirmed. Even so, new research published in the Peer Reviewed journal Environmental Research states that there is often insufficient data supporting PFAS exposure with any specific disease. The Australian study shows that policymakers, and the population at large, tend to overreact to PFAS. Irresponsible production processes–not risks posed by consumer items– should be the true reason for concern and regulation.
The overreaction and knee-jerk policy response in the form of blanket ban is also largely mainly by the underreporting of PFAS phase out successes. The self-regulation of medical production companies in the 2000s led to a decrease of PFAS levels in the bloodstream of Americans. According to a 2018 Toxicological Profile for Perfluoroalkyls by the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, “industrial releases have been declining since companies began phasing out the production and use of several perfluoroalkyls in the early 2000s.”
There is still a lot we don’t know about PFAS and the specific risks each of these chemicals carries. What we do know, though, is that exposure to contaminated water is dangerous. U.S. government regulation should target these harmful production processes–rather than looking to ban all PFAS, in particular those found in consumer items. It is key to not overreact and spread anxiety around PFAS, where there is no evidence.
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