The Fight to Ban Forever Chemicals

Photograph Source: Tim Fuller – CC BY 2.0

Forever chemicals are called forever for a reason. They take hundreds of years to disappear, and cancer-causing forever chemicals are everywhere. But mostly they’re in plastics, the water and certain no-stick products for food. PFAS – per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – don’t break down, and since very tiny amounts of them cause multiple diseases and dangerous health conditions – kidney and testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension, infertility and high cholesterol – you’d think the federal government would be on the case. But you would be wrong.

People have known about the dangers of PFASs for a long time; it wasn’t until last March, however, that the Environmental Protection Agency finally proposed to limit six such chemicals. This is a pathetic track record, because there are another 5000 plus such chemicals, and who knows how many of those cause sickness? So any sane person should be relieved to learn, according to the Washington Post June 5, that the states have shot way ahead of the feds on this – even states where the GOP controls the legislature. Evidently this is a bipartisan issue.

Since Washington state restricted forever chemicals in food packaging and fire-fighting foam back in 2018, “at least 106 similar laws have been enacted in 24 states…This year alone, 195 new bills were introduced in dozens of state legislatures, seeking to require that an expanding list of products be PFAS-free.” Naturally chemical companies, represented by the American Chemistry Council, resisted. The ACC argues that most “of the 5,000-plus chemicals in the group are safe,” and has “successfully fought congressional bills to restrict PFAS.” Those successes are oxymorons – i.e., failures for human health. Besides, over 5000 is a big number. Even if “most” are safe, that conceivably leaves thousands that aren’t. And frankly, taking the ACC’s word about the safety of forever chemicals is not advisable.

Health risks of these chemicals, invented in the 1930s, didn’t get widely noticed until 2001, “when attorney Robert Bilott sent an open letter detailing potential hazards and asking the EPA to investigate disposal of the chemicals by E.I. du Pont de Nemours.” This was prior to Bilott’s class action lawsuit against the company that “awarded affected residents $70 million in damages and created a scientific panel…on PFAS exposure.” In 2011 and 2012, that panel linked exposure to numerous illnesses and bad health conditions.

 Nope, these things aren’t good for you. And their manufacturers knew it for 40 years before we did, according to the Lever June 7. Industry documents received by public health researchers at University of California San Francisco show that manufacturers knew since 1970 that forever chemicals were “highly toxic when inhaled and moderately toxic when ingested.” No wonder, the Lever says “the major manufacturers, 3M and DuPont, reported spending a combined total of more than $3.8 million lobbying on chemical issues including PFAS regulation last year.” These corporations have a problem. After all, forever chemicals are, according to the CDC, in the blood of 97 percent of Americans. That’s potentially a lot of law suits. Even worse, as people start dying from these things and it gets more publicity, the pressure to ban them outright will build.

That’s why chemical companies covered up their own research, which showed PFASs in substances like Teflon to be highly toxic. “But instead of reporting these findings to regulators,” the Lever notes, “as required by law, the company adopted a communications strategy equating the toxicity of the chemicals to common table salt. By 1980, employee surveys by DuPont and 3M found that pregnant workers exposed to the chemicals were giving birth to babies with abnormalities in their eyes and tear ducts.” As the evidence grew, the companies decided to use the EPA to help them, and “the EPA appears to have obliged, telling consumers in March 2006 that they did not need to stop using their nonstick products.” This was lousy advice, as we now know.

So the EPA clearly is not the place to go to solve this problem. Neither, of course, are the corporations that produce these poisons. As the UCSF research said of DuPont and 3M documents, they “reveal clear evidence that the chemical industry knew about the dangers of PFAS and failed to let the public, regulators, and even their own employees know about the risks.” Producers of a documentary about forever chemicals, “The Devil We Know,” donated industry documents to UCSF. Based on those, one researcher wrote that “DuPont had evidence of PFAS toxicity from internal animal and occupational studies that they did not publish in the scientific literature and failed to report their findings to the EPA as required under TSCA. These documents were marked as ‘confidential’ and in some cases, the industry executives are explicit that they ‘wanted this memo destroyed.’”

Also, to return to those more than 5000 other forever chemicals that their producers claim are harmless – given these chemical corporations’ mendacity about what they knew were very dangerous substances, we should take their assurances with a grain of salt. In other words, assume these other forever chemicals are toxic until they’re proven otherwise. In some circumstances, such skepticism might seem unfair to the companies, but not in these, because the companies’ track records stink. Exactly the way big tobacco and oil companies’ records stink. It’s no secret they knew of their products’ dangers and lied about them. Thus it would be foolish indeed to believe their claims that any of their deadly products are safe.

So quite luckily, the states have stepped in. New restrictions “have prompted major companies like McDonald’s, Ikea and Target to set deadlines for eliminating PFAS chemicals in all or most of their products,” according to the Post. Meanwhile consumers have ways to protect themselves. First, drink filtered water. Second, avoid fast food, whose wrappers are coated with these chemicals. Third, don’t refrigerate food in plastic containers; use glass or metal. Those three steps won’t eliminate the deadly forever chemicals already in our bloodstreams, but they, along with more state legislative regulation, can begin to limit future exposure.

The companies may be unhappy states have addressed this, but too bad. For consumers it’s undeniably, after all, a matter of life and death.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.