© 2024
Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Local lawmakers propose bill to ban 'forever' chemicals from food packaging, firefighter gear

Firefighter store their personal protective equipment in plastic bags. Concerns about PFAS has led to a number of changes: including special washing machines and storage that allows firefighters to spend as little time around their gear as possible.
Kit Noble
Firefighter on Nantucket store their personal protective equipment in plastic bags. Concerns about PFAS has led to a number of changes: including special washing machines and storage that allows firefighters to spend as little time around their gear as possible.

Local lawmakers want to ban thousands of chemicals from being added to food packaging and many of the products we use every day. That’s one of many goals laid out in the “Act to protect Massachusetts public health from PFAS," a newly filed piece of legislation from Rep. Kate Hogan and Sen. Julian Cyr. CAI’s Eve Zuckoff spoke with Dr. Laurel Schaider, senior scientist at Silent Spring Institute, to better understand just how effective these proposed regulations could be. They began by talking about what PFAS chemicals are and how they affect our health.

Laurel Schaider: So PFAS is an acronym that stands for Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances. It's kind of a mouthful. It's a class of related compounds. By the EPA's most recent estimate, there are over 12,000 different chemical structures that are classified as PFAS. So unlike lead or mercury, which are just each one specific type of pollutant, PFAS is a broad class of chemicals. PFAS are widely used in consumer products. These chemicals have unique properties that make them nonstick, stain-resistant, waterproof and grease-proof, so they show up in a lot of places where you might not expect to find them, like microwave popcorn bags, dental floss, guitar strings, rock climbing ropes, cosmetics, and the list goes on. They can also accumulate in our bodies. That's really concerning because exposures to PFAS have been linked to effects on the immune system and decreased vaccine efficiency, particularly in children. It can also affect the liver, kidney or metabolism. It's linked to small decreases in birth weight and higher levels of exposure have been linked to cancer.

Eve Zuckoff: A main goal of this bill is to eliminate PFAS from being intentionally added to food packaging and consumer products, and it requires testing for unintentionally added PFAS in certain products by 2030. First of all, how do you even do that?

Laurel Schaider: Sure. And I think it's easier to think about banning PFAS as a class when you're talking about making new products. When we're talking about addressing water contamination, it's challenging to kind of wrap our head around all of the PFAS that might be there. But when we're talking about products, manufacturers do know what they're adding into products. So you might wonder how might that be enforced? How is that going to be documented? And I don't know how that will be verified, but I would imagine that it would include manufacturers making a statement that they're not knowingly adding to their product. But testing for unintentionally added PFAS starting in 2030, that's a trickier challenge. As a manufacturer, you might not plan on adding PFAS to a product, but if you're incorporating any recycled materials you can't know everything that's in that.

Eve Zuckoff: This bill also establishes a PFAS remediation fund to help towns, public water systems, and private well owners with the cost of addressing PFAS contamination. It directs the state to help inform people in environmental justice communities about PFAS and in multiple languages. For firefighters, it will eventually ban the sale of gear that has intentionally added PFAS. If this bill gets passed, those are just some of the examples of what this bill sets out to do. Is there a piece of it that you think will be the most impactful to getting people out of our environment, out of our bodies?

Laurel Schaider: I mean, I am impressed that the bill does really tackle PFAS from a lot of different angles. And I think it is really important that the bill both addresses past contamination and ways to remediate contamination of water supplies or groundwater. I was also glad to see that there was a component in here about educational resources for health care professionals. Doctors and other clinicians often don't receive training about environmental sources of disease in general and PFAS in particular. So it's great to see that there is a plan for a more coordinated effort at the state level to educate doctors on this topic.

Eve Zuckoff: Is this the way — through state law — to reduce PFAS exposure?

Laurel Schaider: It certainly seems to be what's working well now. And Massachusetts is not the only state that's aiming to tackle PFAS exposures. For instance, the state of Maine did pass a bill a year or two ago that seems perhaps the motivation for some of the components of this proposed bill here in Massachusetts, in terms of requiring disclosure of PFAS in products and moving towards banning intentionally added PFAS to a wide range of products in our everyday lives. So far much of the action that we've seen in terms of restricting PFAS has been taking place at the state level. When we talk about drinking water, Massachusetts is one of the states that has been on the leading edge of that as well. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not yet set any federal drinking water standards for PFAS. So there's no federal requirement for water supplies to test or treat for PFAS. But states have kind of stepped up to fill in that gap. I think ideally we would see more action at the federal level to ensure consistent level of protection across all states. I think another area where we've seen an action is is in the marketplace and retailers also have been stepping up and making pledges to stop selling products that contain PFAS or phasing out certain lines of products that contain PFAS. And that's due in part to advocacy by individual consumers and by nonprofit organizations asking manufacturers to turn off the tap. So there's actually been a lot of movement in recent years on that front, and I've been encouraged to see that a lot of that has focused on restricting PFAS as a class. Within the class of chemicals, there are some specific chemicals that have been phased out at the federal level, but in their place are other PFAS chemicals that are just kind of chemical cousins and they raise many of the same health concerns. So earlier on, I was concerned that these bills would just shift our focus from one branch of the tree to another. So I'm glad to see this bill considering PFAS as a class. I think that's an important component.

Eve Zuckoff: Is there more that you wish that this bill specifically — or a future bill — would take on?

Laurel Schaider: Of course there's always more. This is a huge multipronged issue. So no one bill will really encompass every aspect. At the Silent Spring Institute, we do work with a number of impacted communities. And so we hear a lot of questions and concerns from people who discover that they have PFAS in their water or maybe in work environment. And one common theme that we hear comes from people who wish they could get access to PFAS blood testing. So PFAS blood tests provides an indication of your own personal level of exposure. These tests are expensive and they can be hard to obtain. So I didn't see anything about that in this bill. I know the state of New Hampshire is requiring insurance companies to cover the cost of PFAS blood testing. As far as I know, that's the only state where that's currently offered. It doesn't make testing accessible to everyone automatically, but it does reduce some of the barriers.

Eve Zuckoff: Until we have better regulations in place, better commitments by manufacturers, how do we avoid PFAS in a world where it feels like it's in so much?

Laurel Schaider: I would suggest a few resources that that I've been a part of developing. The PFAS Exchange is a website where people can go and learn about how to reduce their exposures to PFAS. And the Silent Spring Institute has a smartphone app called Detox Me, where people can get tips for how to reduce their exposures to PFAS and other everyday toxic chemicals. When we're shopping for products for our homes, there are some things that we can do to reduce the likelihood that we're bringing products into our home that contain PFAS. An easy one, is to skip microwave popcorn. Those bags that hold in all the greasy additives, those bags contain PFAS most of the time. There are some things we can do, like avoiding products that contain language, assuring us the product is stain resistant or waterproof. For buying a tablecloth, we don't need to have that be stain resistant But I'd say that only goes so far. There is more that we can do through collective actions. So if you're in a workplace or in a community or school system, if you have any say in terms of purchasing practices, you can add language to procurement policies and say, you know, we don't want to buy products that contain PFAS. That can have more power than we have as individuals.

Eve Zuckoff: Laurel Schaider, thank you so much.

Laurel Schaider: Thanks, Eve.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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