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Mass. task force takes aim at eliminating ‘forever chemicals’ from consumer products

microwave popcorn
Liz Lerner
/
PFAS can be found in food packaging, like microwave popcorn.

Massachusetts policymakers are moving to prohibit the sale of consumer products made with a class of toxic “forever” chemicals known as PFAS .

On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Inter-Agency PFAS Task Force met for the 11th and final time to adopt and release recommendations for future action to protect public health.

Exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — better known as PFAS — has been linked to cancer, liver damage and other health problems.

The task force recommended that the state explore litigation to hold PFAS manufacturers accountable; expand PFAS regulations; and phase “intentionally added” PFAS out of consumer goods, prioritizing clothing, food packaging, and children’s products.

“With this report,” said state Sen. Julian Cyr, the task force’s co-chair, “we have a roadmap by the end of the decade to phase out many of the products that are resulting in PFAS exposure.”

The panel went on to recommend that the state support environmental justice communities through loan forgiveness for PFAS remediation projects; fire departments by disposing of stocks of aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) that contain PFAS; and firefighters trying to remove the chemicals from their protective gear.

It also looked more closely at PFAS traveling through drinking water, recommending that the state help homeowners with private well testing, and fund projects by towns and municipalities to detect and remove PFAS in public water systems.

The state currently regulates six PFAS chemicals in drinking water but doesn’t limit PFAS in any consumer products.

Health and environmental experts have long called for a broader approach to regulation, given that there are more than 9,000 known PFAS compounds.

Cyr, a Democrat whose district covers the Cape and Islands, said the state is moving to do just that by taking on PFAS as a class.

“What I think Cape and Islanders should take comfort in is that we're saying, ‘Hey, look, we're not going to take a whack-a-mole approach here. We're going to be regulating PFAS as a group of chemicals that we know we need to take action on, that we need to mitigate the existing exposure we have, and we need to remove it from our environment.’”

The roadmap and the work of Cyr and co-chair Rep. Kate Hogan were lauded by a broad coalition of public health and environmental groups who say they hope the first priority will be passing pending bills that phase out PFAS in firefighters’ protective gear.

“We are grateful to Chairs Hogan and Cyr and members of the PFAS task force for their dedication and commitment to investigating the impacts of PFAS in Massachusetts,” the groups said in a statement. They include Nantucket PFAS Action Group, Massachusetts Sierra Club, Environment Massachusetts, and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University.

“Their findings confirm that we face a major public health threat from the manufacture, use, and disposal of PFAS and, more importantly, the report sounds the alarm for swift action to protect public and environmental health.”

But some public health and environmental experts said they wish the state went further.

“What was so disappointing to me was the fact that this report is saying we're going to phase out intentionally added PFAS by 2030,” said Kyla Bennett, director of science policy for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

“I would have preferred to see something much stronger that says, ‘There shall be no intentionally added PFAS in any consumer product, unless it is something that is essential for our survival.’ Full stop. And, ‘We're going to phase it out by 2024 … .’ To wait eight years for three categories is not nearly enough.”

Pharmaceuticals and disposable face masks, she said, are on the “very short list” of essential products, but “for things like makeup and bakeware and frying pans and dental floss and carpets and guitar strings and ski wax and bike lube and artificial turf and pesticides — those are not things that are essential to our safety, and [PFAS chemicals] should be taken out immediately.”

Cyr said this report should be seen as a first step.

“This report is a real acknowledgment of the ubiquity of PFAS in our environment, of the risk it poses to human health. And we're aiming to take a comprehensive approach here so that we can move swiftly to limit exposure and limit health risk.”

Legislative members of the task force say they hope to file a comprehensive PFAS bill in the next year.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.