Why PFAS should scare the bejeezus out of you
PFAS have been used since the WWII era, and are dead useful because they repel both oil and water. You’ll find them in all kinds of household products, from nonstick pans to numerous different cleaning products, to food packaging—such as pizza boxes—to storage containers, clothing, furniture, carpets, and far more. So PFAS are everywhere, they last forever, and, unfortunately, multiple studies show they cause:
- Testicular, kidney, liver, and pancreatic cancer
- Reproductive problems
- Weakened childhood immunity
- Low birth weight
- Endocrine disruption
- Increased cholesterol
- Weight gain in children and dieting adults
Even worse, corporations had evidence that PFAS were harmful as early as 1950. As the Environmental Working Group noted: “For decades, chemical companies covered up evidence of PFAS’ health hazards. Today nearly all Americans, including newborn babies, have PFAS in their blood, and up to 110 million people may be drinking PFAS-tainted water. What began as a ‘miracle of modern chemistry’ is now a national crisis.” PFAS contamination has occurred in every part of the country, as the map below indicates. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael S. Regan stated: “PFAS contamination has been devastating communities for decades. I saw this first hand in North Carolina.”
In terms of equity, PFAS disproportionately affect some of the most vulnerable communities in America, who all too often live near manufacturing plants that produce these substances. In late 2019, the Union of Concerned Scientists produced a report, Abandoned Science, Broken Promises, that examined the damage inflicted by The Man Who Lost An Election And Tried To Steal It on this issue. The report concluded that “communities of color and low-income communities are more likely to bear the economic and biological burden of the federal government’s lack of responsiveness to community concerns on this toxic class of chemicals.”
What’s Biden doing about it?
While running for president, Joe Biden promised to “tackle PFAS pollution.” Since taking office, he’s taken a number of steps to do just that. In the first 100 days of the Biden-Harris administration, we saw, among other actions, the EPA create a council specifically devoted to PFAS, develop new standards on drinking water, and initiate research on PFAS levels in wastewater. It’s important to note that while John Oliver brought much-needed additional attention to the matter in early October, Biden had been doing good work long before that point.
Regarding legislation, Biden has pushed for approximately $10 billion in the Build Back Better plan and the hard infrastructure bill to deal with contamination caused by PFAS. Additionally, the White House backed the PFAS Action Act of 2021, which passed the House on July 21 and is currently under consideration in the Senate. This bill, which impressively garnered 23 Republican votes in the House, would take the following measures:
- Requiring the EPA to set drinking water standards for two PFAS compounds—PFOA and PFOS—within two years;
- Designate PFOA as a “hazardous substance” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) within one year;
- Require the EPA to determine if all PFAS should be classified as “hazardous substances” under CERCLA within five years;
- Require testing of all PFAS for toxicity to human health under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA);
- Require the EPA to issue drinking water standards under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) for at least PFOA and PFOS [Note: these two are most hazardous] (although the bill calls for standards for all PFAS) within two years;
- Require the EPA to designate PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous air pollutants” pursuant to the Clean Air Act within six months;
- Create labelling requirements for products to signify that they are or are not PFAS-free; and
- Create effluent regulations under the Water Pollution Control Act.
Getting that legislation through the Senate is a dicey proposition at best, however. Nevertheless, recent weeks have seen more major action from the executive branch, culminating in the issuance on Oct. 18 of a detailed plan to “research, restrict, and remediate harmful PFAS.” A White House fact sheet explained that these forever chemicals pose “a serious threat across rural, suburban, and urban areas. To safeguard public health and protect the environment, the efforts being announced will help prevent PFAS from being released into the air, drinking systems, and food supply, and the actions will expand cleanup efforts to remediate the impacts of these harmful pollutants.”
The White House roadmap will set limits on the amount of PFAS allowed in drinking water, require corporations that use PFAS to provide the public with in-depth information about the amount that appears in their products, and, perhaps most importantly, use the Superfund law to name as hazardous substances the two most dangerous PFAS: Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS).
These two have been studied more extensively than any other PFAS chemical. We know that they are especially resistant to being worn down to any degree. Thus, they are even more widespread and prevalent in every part of the country and type of environment—they are found in the air, soil, and groundwater. As the EPA noted, the “toxicity, mobility and bioaccumulation potential of PFOS and PFOA result in potential adverse effects on the environment and human health.”
Will these actions to rein in the harm caused by PFAS cost companies some money? Yes, but as Mr. Regan put it, “It could be expensive, but it’s necessary. It’s time for manufacturers to be transparent and provide the American people with this level of detail.”
Environmental activists offered praise for the new roadmap on PFAS. Earthjustice called it a “good first step” while also stating that the EPA “must move faster to set deadlines and expand regulations to stop the approval of new PFAS. It must also address incineration and stop industrial discharges.” Some activists were less pleased than others, to be sure.
These companies have been getting away with polluting, lying about it to regulators as well as the public, and avoiding the costs for far too long. If you weren’t already angry, you will be after reading this New York Times article detailing how the people who lived near the Fayetteville Works chemical plant in North Carolina are suffering from all kinds of PFAS-related pollution that has taken a toll on their health. The authors also explain how the companies responsible managed to skirt any kind of real accountability.
They have used public charm offensives to persuade regulators and lawmakers to back off. They have engineered complex corporate transactions to shield themselves from legal liability. And they have rolled out a conveyor belt of scantly tested substitute chemicals that sometimes turn out to be just as dangerous as their predecessors.
One woman, Beth Markesino of Wilmington, had to give birth at 24 weeks due to issues with her placenta. Her baby boy was born lacking a kidney and a bladder—we know this kind of birth defect results from PFAS contamination. He lived only a short time. Markesino drank water laden with PFAS throughout her pregnancy. At a public meeting with a corporate executive held after the truth had started to come out, she told him through tears: “I buried my son.”
Republicans don’t like what Biden’s doing about it
As for Republicans, it goes way beyond Trump. His actions merely reflect decades of Republican ideology where the first rule of regulations remains what it has been since Reagan: “Whatever corporations want, corporations get.” The corollary to that rule is, “Oh, and if it hurts regular people, we don’t give a rat’s ass.”
For Republicans, and the corporations whom they serve, regulations are just plain wrong. They see them as illegitimate roadblocks to be navigated around, which is why Republican presidents love to put corporate executives who got rich doing exactly that in charge of regulatory bodies. Fox, henhouse, you know the drill.
And here’s the real kicker: Not only are you and I directly harmed when corporations pollute our air, water, and soil, so are the competitors of those who pollute. How in the world are honest businesses—ones that play by the rules, don’t cut corners, and refuse to save money by dumping the foulest kinds of waste into the environment—able to stay in business when some other guy can undercut them on price exactly because they save money by polluting? The incentive to do the wrong thing is so strong that it requires even stronger disincentives in the form of harsh penalties and, if we’re talking about pollution, an EPA with the resources and ideological commitment to be a truly vigilant monitor of industry behavior. Without it, our health and safety don’t stand a chance.
There’s no need to take my word on what Republicans think about the regulations that aim to keep us safe. On the very same day that the Biden White House issued its plan to combat the devastation caused by PFAS, the face of the next generation of Trumpists put forth this bit of wisdom.
I offered my own bit in response: “Simplistic generalizations harm America.”
As for Cawthorn, he offered just those three words, with which he presented his party’s absolutist position. Putting Cawthorn’s words and Biden’s actions side by side illustrates the difference between the simplistic, politicized, rigid ideology of Republicans and the problem-solving, fact-based, scientific, actually giving a shit about the health of all Americans approach Democrats take. You might also recognize that contrast from a little thing called COVID-19.
On PFAS specifically, the Trump White House tried to prevent the release of a CDC study that documented the reality that PFAS do real damage to the human body even when they appear in the environment at much lower levels than we previously thought were problematic. Remember Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA? His hands were all over this hatchet job. Why suppress the study? Because the Trumpers thought it would be a “public relations nightmare” for polluters—one of whom is our very own Department of Defense.
The policy contrast between the Biden and Trump administration approaches to the environment extends far beyond just PFAS (or the pandemic, for that matter). On air pollution, the twice-impeached Florida resident issued a rule that hamstrung the ability of the EPA to act to protect the air we breathe. The EPA under Biden stated that the Trump rule would have prevented it from being able to “use the best available science in developing Clean Air Act regulations.” Biden got rid of it, and his administration’s rationale appears to go beyond any of his predecessors in terms of the level of support it provides for the EPA to act aggressively to protect our health.
Likewise, after Fuck a l’Orange gutted the Endangered Species Act, his Democratic successor made a number of moves to restore its ability to do what the law’s authors intended it to do. Those are just some areas—broad ones, no doubt—of environmental policy. Here’s a full list of the over 100 environmental regulations Trump did away with, each time putting the interests of his fat cat corporate buddies ahead of your health (and he’s far from the first Republican president to do so).
PFAS pose an immediate and long-lasting threat to our health. And Republicans are actively preventing us from doing something about it, and not only at the federal level. I mentioned Wisconsin at the outset, and I encourage you to read the whole piece in The Guardian to get a sense of how areas in every part of that state are suffering, and who’s to blame.
As municipalities and residents wrestle with the water crisis, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature has killed legislation and blocked funding meant to address the problem, which is likely much larger than currently known: Only about 2% of the state’s utilities have tested for the chemicals, and those that have tested were checking for no more than 30 of the approximately 9,000 PFAS compounds that exist.
Additionally, the Republican-dominated legislature rejected the Clear Act that would have helped address the problems caused by PFAS by creating standards to assess whether water in a given location is safe to use. Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, also included $22 million targeted at testing PFAS levels and cleaning up damage. If you guessed that Republicans ripped that line out of the budget, you’d be on the mark.
Scott Laesar, water program director for the advocacy group Clean Wisconsin, explained: “We’ve had difficulty just testing water to get a handle on the scale and scope of PFAS contamination. We are asking for some really basic information about what’s in people’s water, and if we can’t even get that, then we’re in a difficult spot.” He added: “We have an industry that would rather not know what’s out there and is engaged in a pretty cynical effort to maintain the status quo. This legislature has had numerous opportunities to invest in addressing PFAS and they have elected not to do so.”
The Biden-Harris administration, on the other hand, has already made major progress across the board in undoing the damage on environmental policies, and PFAS specifically, that Trump did over four years, although they need to do a lot more to solve these problems in a comprehensive way. We can take heart from the early November announcement of new regulations on methane that will “push oil and gas companies to more accurately detect, monitor and repair methane leaks from new and existing wells, pipelines and other equipment.”
If the White House adds to what they’ve already done in the regulatory arena, and Democrats take significant action on climate in the final versions of the spending bills currently being considered in Congress, this Democratic team will have not only reversed Donald Dickweed’s harmful actions, they will have begun to create a new legacy of their own—one that voters will remember. If they don’t, voters will remember that too.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)