Let the science decide on forever chemicals in water

  • In this 2018 file photo, equipment used to test for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS, in drinking water is seen at Trident Laboratories in Holland, Mich. AP

Published: 9/15/2021 2:37:17 PM

Saying “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances” is a mouthful — so let’s stick with the common abbreviation for this group of manmade chemicals: PFAS. And no, you don’t want a mouthful of them. If consumed in high concentrations, PFAS may be harmful to human health.

But we don’t know how high a concentration it takes. That’s why the Biden administration is commissioning major new studies on their toxicity — and is seeking $10 billion through its infrastructure package to clean up and monitor sites where PFAS may contaminate drinking water.

This makes sense. While much research has already been conducted on the potential impact of PFAS and health outcomes, consensus is emerging that newer methods are needed to ensure policy is based on sound science.

Unfortunately, a number of state and federal policymakers are not interested in waiting for the results of scientific research. Some jurisdictions have moved forward with bans on using PFAS in products, and a House bill would immediately declare them hazardous substances. The nation’s Democratic attorneys general recently wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency, urging the agency to make sweeping changes regarding PFAS management. And in June EPA officials imposed new restrictions on the importation and use of these chemicals.

The problem with this alarmist approach is that we have no readily available substitutes for these chemicals.

Although most non-chemists have probably never heard of them, PFAS are common in manufacturing processes and everyday products. They are a central component of semiconductor manufacturing.

They are used in aircraft and cars to prevent emissions from escaping into the atmosphere. They are in defibrillators and pacemakers. They are in the personal protective equipment used by frontline healthcare workers.

We can take pictures with our smartphones in the rain because PFAS are used to keep critical components dry. Stain-resistant carpets and nonstick cookware contain PFAS, and many takeout cartons incorporate them to stop liquids from soaking through.

In short, PFAS are highly useful.

But they can persist in the environment or accumulate in our bodies. When a PFAS-containing product disintegrates in a landfill, the chemicals can leach into the water supply. Studies have found that virtually all Americans have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood.

The EPA needs to find out what level of accumulation is dangerous so that regulatory agencies can act on science, not superstition.

The fact is, there are thousands of PFAS chemicals, each with different uses and risk profiles, and only a few of them have been studied in depth. It likely will not make sense to regulate them as a single class.

If activists and the EPA had their way, America’s vital domestic semiconductor manufacturing, which supports tens of thousands of jobs, and vital commercial, consumer, and scientific advancements, would grind to a halt.

Instead of restricting PFAS use, policymakers should partner with manufacturers and focus on risk-based environmental stewardship regulations. If we ban PFAS outright, the price we’d pay in diminished health care and public safety — and diminished economic growth — would far outweigh any presumed risks.

Rep. Mark Alliegro, Ph.D., is a cell biologist with a background in biochemistry and molecular biology. He currently represents Grafton County District 7 in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, and formerly served as a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, a program director at the National Science Foundation and as a volunteer fireman.
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