After Decades of Disinformation, the US Finally Begins Regulating PFAS Chemicals


by Derrick Z. Jackon, Fellow




Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would regulate two forms of PFAS contamination under Superfund laws reserved for “the nation’s worst hazardous waste sites.” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the action will ensure that “polluters pay for the costs to clean up pollution threatening the health of communities.”

That was an encore to the Food and Drug Administration announcing in February that companies will phase out food packaging with PFAS wrappings and the mid-April announcement by Regan that the EPA was establishing the first-ever federal limits on PFAS in drinking water. At that time, he declared, “We are one huge step closer to finally shutting off the tap on forever chemicals once and for all.”

One can forever hope the tap will be eventually shut, since it took seemingly forever for the nation to begin to crack down on this class of per-and polyfluoroalkyl synthetic chemicals. The chemical bonds of PFAS, among the strongest ever created, resulted in an incredible ability to resist heat, moisture, grease and stains. PFAS chemicals seemed like miracle substances in the 20th-century quest for convenience. They became ubiquitous in household furnishings, cookware, cosmetics, and fast-food packaging, and a key component of many firefighting foams.

The bonds are so indestructible they would impress Superman. They don’t break down in the environment for thousands of years, hence the “forever” nickname. Unfortunately for humans, the same properties represent Kryptonite.

Today, the group of chemicals known as PFAS is the source of one of the greatest contaminations of drinking water in the nation’s history. Flowing from industrial sites, landfills, military bases, airports, and wastewater treatment discharges, PFAS chemicals, according to the United States Geological Survey, are detectable in nearly half our tap water. Other studies suggest that a majority of the US population drinks water containing PFAS chemicals—as many as 200 million people, according to a 2020 peer-reviewed study conducted by the Environmental Working Group.


PFAS chemicals are everywhere

No one escapes PFAS chemicals. They make it into the kitchen or onto the dining room table in the form of non-stick cookware, microwave popcorn bags, fast-food burger wrappers, candy wrappers, beverage cups, take-out containers, pastry bags, French-fry and pizza boxes. They reside throughout homes in carpeting, upholstery, paints, and solvents.

They are draped on our bodies in “moisture-wicking” gym tights, hiking gear, yoga pants, sports bras, and rain and winter jackets. They are on our feet in waterproof shoes and boots. Children have PFAS in baby bedding and school uniforms. Athletes of all ages play on PFAS on artificial turf. PFAS chemicals are on our skin and gums through eye, lip, face cosmetics, and dental floss. Firefighters have it in their protective clothing.

As a result, nearly everyone in the United States has detectable levels of PFAS in their bodies. There is no known safe level of human exposure to these chemicals. They are linked to multiple cancers, decreased fertility in women, developmental delays in children, high cholesterol, and damage to the cardiovascular and immune systems. A 2022 study by researchers from Harvard Medical School and Sichuan University in China estimated that exposure to one form of PFAS (PFOS, for perfluorooctane sulfonic acid), may have played a role in the deaths of more than 6 million people in the United States between 1999 and 2018.

As sweeping as PFAS contamination is, exposures in the United States are also marked by clear patterns of environmental injustice and a betrayal to military families. An analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that people of color and low-income people were more likely to live near non-military sources of PFAS contamination than wealthier, white people.

Another study by UCS found that 118 of 131 military bases had PFAS contamination concentrations at least 10 times higher than federal risk levels. A federal study last year found a higher risk of testicular cancer for Air Force servicemen engaged in firefighting with PFAS foams.


Tobacco-like disinformation

In the end, the whole nation was betrayed, in a manner straight out of the tobacco disinformation playbook. Behind the image of convenience, manufacturers long knew that PFAS chemicals were toxic. Internal documents uncovered over the years show how DuPont and 3M, the two biggest legacy makers of PFAS, knew back in the 1960s that the compounds built up in blood and enlarged the livers of laboratory animals. By 1970, a DuPont document referring to a PFAS chemical under its famed “Teflon” trademark said that it “is highly toxic when inhaled and moderately toxic when injected.”

By the late 1970s, DuPont was discovering that PFAS chemicals were affecting the liver of workers and that plant employees were having myocardial infarctions at levels “somewhat higher than expected.” But that did not stop the industry from downplaying the risk to workers.

One internal 3M document in 1980 claimed that PFAS chemicals have “a lower toxicity like table salt.” Yet, a study last year of documents by researchers at the University of California San Francisco and the University of Colorado found that DuPont, internally tracking the outcome of worker pregnancies in 1980 and 1981, recorded two cases of birth defects in infants. Yet, in 1981, in what the researchers determined was a “joint” communication to employees of DuPont and 3M, the companies claimed: “We know of no evidence of birth defects” at DuPont and were “not knowledgeable about the pregnancy outcome” of employees at 3M who were exposed to PFAS.

The same suppression and disinformation kept government regulators at bay for decades. The San Francisco and Colorado researchers found internal DuPont documents from 1961 to 1994 showing toxicity in animal and occupational studies that were never reported to the EPA under the Toxic Substances Control Act. As one example, DuPont, according to a 2022 feature by Politico’s Energy and Environment News, successfully negotiated in the 1960s with the Food and Drug Administration to keep lower levels of PFAS-laden food wrapping and containers on the market despite evidence of enlarged livers in laboratory rats.


A patchwork response

Eventually, the deception and lies exploded in the face of the companies, as independent scientists found more and more dire connections to PFAS in drinking water and human health and lawsuits piled up in the courts. Last year, 3M agreed to a settlement of between $10.5 billion and $12.5 billion for PFAS contamination in water systems around the nation. DuPont and other companies agreed to another $1.2 billion in settlements. That’s not nothing, but it is a relatively small price to pay for two industrial behemoths that have been among the Fortune 500 every year since 1955.

In the last two decades, the continuing science on PFAS chemicals and growing public concern has led to a patchwork of individual apparel and food companies to say they will stop using PFAS in clothes and wrapping. Some states have enacted their own drinking water limits and are moving forward with legislation to restrict or ban products containing PFAS. In 2006, the EPA began a voluntary program in which the leading PFAS manufacturers in the United States agreed to stop manufacturing PFOA, one of the most concerning forms of PFAS.

But companies had a leisurely decade to meet commitments. Even as companies negotiated, a DuPont document assumed coziness with the EPA. “We need the EPA to quickly (like first thing tomorrow) say the following: Consumer products sold under the Teflon brand are safe. . .there are no human health effects to be caused by PFOA [a chemical in the PFAS family].”

Two years ago, 3M announced it will end the manufacture of PFAS chemicals and discontinue their application across its portfolio by the end of next year. But the company did so with an insulting straight face, saying on its products are “safe and effective for their intended uses in everyday life.”


EPA action finally, but more is needed

The nation can no longer accept the overall patchwork or industry weaning itself off PFAS at its own pace. The EPA currently plans to issue drinking water limits for six forms of PFAS and place two forms under Superfund jurisdiction. The Superfund designation gives the government its strongest powers to enforce cleanups that would be paid for by polluters instead of taxpayers.”

But there are 15,000 PFAS compounds, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. There is nothing to stop companies from trying to play around with other compounds that could also prove harmful. Cleaning up the PFAS chemicals that have already been allowed will take billions of dollars and water utilities around the country are already screaming, with some justification, that the federal government needs to provide more money than it is offering. And even the Superfund designation does not actually ban their use.

It would be better if the United States were to follow the lead of the European Union which is now considering a ban or major restrictions on the whole class of chemicals, fearing that “without taking action, their concentrations will continue to increase, and their toxic and polluting effects will be difficult to reverse.”

The effects are scary to quantify. Regan said in his drinking water announcement that the new rules would improve water quality for 100 million people and “prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious illnesses across the country.” A draft EPA economic analysis last year predicted that tight standards could save more than 7,300 lives alone from bladder cancer, kidney cancer and cardiovascular diseases, and avoid another 27,000 non-fatal cases of those diseases.

That makes it high time that the federal government borrow from DuPont’s arrogant assumption that it could push around the EPA. We need the EPA to quickly (like first thing tomorrow) say the following: Consumer products with PFAS are not safe and are causing unacceptable environmental consequences. We are shutting off the tap on ALL of them.”