PFAS ban could do more harm than good

News broke last month that 3M has agreed to pay out $10.3 billion in settlement payments in response to lawsuits claiming that their per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, contaminated drinking water. The funds are supposed to be used to filter PFAS from water supplies where it has been detected, and test for other sites of contamination. 

This is especially important for Mainers, where legislators have begun a process to ban PFAS in consumer products sold in the state. One might think that the 3M settlement proves Maine is on the right track, but it isn’t that simple.

Even the mention of toxic chemicals interacting with the environment is frightening, but 3M’s settlement is not like the example of DuPont, a multinational chemical company that released PFAS, which have contaminated groundwater, into a North Carolina river. The case looms large in the minds of everyday people, in much the same way as Norfolk Southern’s catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine this past February. 

The lawsuits for 3M stem primarily from communities that have been contaminated by the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS. This is an important distinction because when it comes to regulating PFAS and how it is both used and produced firefighting foam is a unique challenge. 

It’s a challenge because there really is no way to contain the foam after use. When these foams are used to put out jet fuel fires at military bases or airports, the top priority is rightly to put out the fire. The chemicals used to suppress the blaze leech into the ground, which is how water becomes contaminated. Shifting away from the regular use of these foams will be a difficult, but necessary step in protecting drinking water.

There are a variety of uses for PFAS that don’t represent nearly the same risk as firefighting foams, and those should not be restricted in the same way. While PFAS are often used for more trivial things like waterproof jackets and non-stick cookware, they are also used for necessary medical devices and the production of semiconductors. 

The Federal Drug Administration has continuously approved both drugs and devices that contain PFAS. Most people don’t seem to know that the medical community is heavily reliant on products using PFAS for the production of medical implants like vascular grafts, stent grafts, surgical meshes, catheter tubes and wiring, as well as heart patches. 

Today it is estimated that roughly 10 percent of Americans have implantable medical devices, many of which rely on PFAS and are approved by the FDA. In fact, the $72.2 billion implantable medical devices market is expected to grow significantly as the American population grows older on average. Those aging individuals are very likely to come in contact with numerous prescription drugs for inflammation, cholesterol and arthritis that contain PFAS.

For semiconductors, manufacturers say PFAS are a vital part of the production process, primarily because of their chemical resistance and surface tension-lowering properties. This makes the chips durable and resistant to liquids and erosion. Efforts to ban PFAS outright from all consumer products, like has been suggested in Maine, may seriously jeopardize chip manufacturing and ultimately make the chip shortage much worse before it gets better. 

This is where the PFAS debate gets geopolitical. You have states like Maine looking to ban PFAS, while the federal government is promoting domestic microchip production.

It may be that banning PFAS production in the United States doesn’t eliminate the demand for PFAS throughout the supply chain. Microchip producers may end up importing these chemicals to avoid a domestic chip shortage. This is no easy task, given that in 2019, the most recent year for which production data are available, the U.S. domestically produced 625 million pounds of PFAS and imported only 54 million pounds. A 571 million pound shortfall is a significant sum, much of which would likely be imported from China. Not ideal.

While protecting drinking water is a noble goal, and one worth pursuing, legislators must not sacrifice key medical necessities and semiconductor production in the process. Doing so would do far more harm than good.

Originally published here

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