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PFAS: When Lasting Forever Is a Problem

As scientists learn more about the health and environmental effects of “forever chemicals,” states are taking action.

By Eric Peterson  |  December 4, 2023

PFAS compounds are known as “forever chemicals” due to their stubborn resistance to environmental cleanup. They don’t degrade easily and are notably mobile in water.

First used in the 1940s, PFAS—short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—are staples in hundreds of commercial and industrial products, including stain- and water-resistant fabrics and carpeting, cleaning materials, paints and firefighting foams. Exposure to some types of PFAS has been linked to serious health effects.

These man-made chemicals are ubiquitous in modern life, Emily Sampson, an NCSL policy analyst, told a session at Base Camp 2023, NCSL’s annual virtual policy meeting.

“The term generally includes thousands of chemicals that often have beneficial industrial uses. Think of anything that is water, grease, stain, heat or fire resistant,” she says.

“It’s important to keep in mind that each state has unique circumstances when it comes to PFAS.”

—Emily Sampson, NCSL

The same chemistry that makes them useful in these applications also makes for an environmental liability. “The very strong carbon-fluorine bonds that make them up also make them particularly durable and able to move easily through systems without degrading,” Sampson says. “That slow breakdown really makes them very persistent in the environment and allows for accumulation.”

More challenging, due to the broad PFAS spectrum and other variables, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. “It’s important to keep in mind that each state has unique circumstances when it comes to PFAS,” Sampson says. “Firefighting, foam, military operations and manufacturing discharge tend to account for a large portion of PFAS presence, but these sources vary across states.”

Federal Action

Sampson says the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Defense and other federal agencies have taken a number of actions regarding PFAS in the last three years.

“Under the Clean Water Act, EPA is developing analytical methodology now to test for about 40 PFAS compounds in water,” she says. “EPA has also proposed its first Clean Water Act aquatic life criteria for PFAS last year with a focus on PFOA and PFOS ... two of the PFAS chemicals that we see in quite large quantities.”

The EPA is also operating under other federal legislation, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, to remediate and manage point-source pollution.

“The federal government also provides some other funding resources that states can use to manage the issue at home,” Sampson says. “And there are several other funding and research tools out there that are either available or in development right now to help folks later.”

States Respond

As scientists learn more about the health and environmental effects of PFAS, states are taking action.

Introductions of PFAS bills on the state level “increased greatly in numbers since 2018 and doubled in number from 2019 to 2022,” Sampson says. “I like to describe it as states using multipronged approaches to manage PFAS, creating legislation in these sort of distinct buckets if you will: reducing or eliminating source material, setting testing and reporting limits, often referred to as maximum contaminant level, or MCL, for the drinking water as well as directing and financing remediation.”

States also are funding studies to better understand the health outcomes stemming from PFAS exposure. “A good example of that from this year is the work that Indiana has done to implement biomonitoring for high-risk populations that have worked closely with PFAS materials,” she says.

Looking Ahead

Actions to minimize PFAS impacts on agriculture are imminent. “We’re really just scratching the surface right now on the pervasiveness of PFAS in these areas,” Sampson says. “We know it moves through the water system and it has certain crop uptake in the agriculture spaces, and some states are already having initial conversations on how to address that contamination at that level.”

Beyond agriculture, some states, including Minnesota, are phasing in broad reporting requirements and prohibitions for consumer products that contain PFAS, including ski wax and children’s items.

Sampson notes that federal and state policies could come into conflict down the road. The EPA’s proposed maximum contaminant levels for PFAS in drinking water “are much lower than any state currently prescribes, and that opens up quite a few questions on how states might execute on these rules should they be finalized. With lower levels, states are going to have to implement different monitoring and intervention techniques. Do they have a structure in place to have that ready to go once the rules go into effect if they do?”

One sticking point, she adds, is that the PFAS cleanup solutions are still in their infancy. “There’s not the technology out there right now to destroy it.”

Eric Peterson is a Denver-based freelancer.

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