PFAS chemicals are being linked to more and more serious health problems. But still, it’s legal to use them in the U.S., with minor exceptions. And they can be imported from other countries. Manufacturers are not required to make the public aware of PFAS content in their products. Consequently, consumers are pretty much in the dark. In the fifth of our 5-part series on PFAS, we look at policies and perspectives on where we are, and we can go from here.
David Fair (DF): This is 89.1 WEMU. I’m David Fair and welcome to the “The Green Room.” PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. There are thousands of different chemicals in the PFAS family, and they’re in thousands of different products. In the first four parts of this series on PFAS, we looked at their potential health impacts, where they’re found, and how consumers and manufacturers can avoid contributing to their spread. How well are voluntary approaches working? What about mandated approaches? In this fifth and final segment in our PFAS series, Barbara Lucas asks a lot of questions, and gets some surprising answers.
Mark Ruffalo: We protect us. WE do.
Barbara Lucas: That’s actor Mark Ruffalo. I’m watching a Youtube trailer for the new movie “Dark Waters.” He’s playing Rob Billot, the lawyer who’s been taking on manufacturers of PFAS chemicals. Here’s the real-life Rob Billot, at a panel I attended on PFAS, in Flint, 2018.
Rob Billot: And the people that are coming to me saying, “What do we do about this? We're being told there are no state or federal regulations, that the agencies can't do anything. The companies are saying they're not required to do anything.”
Mark Ruffalo: You knew, and still you did nothing.
BL: Bilott says even if not required, the companies should’ve shared their suspicions that long-chain PFAS chemicals, namely PFOS and PFOA, could be dangerous.
Billot: What we were seeing was there were decades and decades of studies that had been done by 3M the manufacturer, DuPont as a big customer of not only PFOA, but related chemicals—PFOS that was used in Scotchgard by 3M. And there was all kinds of very troubling toxicity data. There were epidemiology studies, and most of this wasn't published. It wasn't peer reviewed, it wasn't out there in the literature for folks to find. But it was in these internal documents. I'm looking at all this data in the year 2000, early 2001, and what really struck me was when we found that there were no state or federal regulations. Because the agencies probably didn't even know this chemical existed.
BL: The 2004 settlement of Billot’s class action suit resulted in the largest health study of a PFAS chemical in the world. It looked at the blood levels and health histories of people exposed from a Dupont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
Billot: That started in 2005. We ended up getting 69,000 people to participate in that study.
BL: The results showed blood levels 400% higher than the general population, and links to problems like thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, testicular and kidney cancer. Meanwhile, 3M says no human studies to date prove that PFAS causes serious illness. They maintain correlation does not prove causation. Critics of this line of thinking say a causation study would require intentionally exposing people to PFAS, which is unethical.
Billot: Despite all this information this stuff is still not regulated.
BL: We do have an EPA-encouraged voluntary phase-out of long-chain PFAS. The phase-out was celebrated, and since then, it’s been widely assumed that long-chain PFAS chemicals are not found in U.S. products. As 3M says on their webpage PFASfacts.com: PFOA and PFOS are “no longer produced or used in the United States or Europe.” But I know there are other countries, like China, that are still producing them. So can the long-chain be imported? In light of the long-chain contamination left by a leather tannery in Rockford, Michigan, I wondered about shoe leather. I contacted the EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.
BL: After checking into it, their spokesperson responded: “At this time there is no restriction on importing shoe leather containing long-chain PFAS on it.” That was surprising. I had a second question for the EPA: What locations in China are manufacturing PFAS-treated shoes—is that info publicly accessible? (I was prompted to ask, due to studies which have found concerning levels of PFAS in breast milk in Shanghai, and in food crops in Shangdong Province.) I was told, the “EPA does not collect data on companies importing PFAS-treated shoe leather to the U.S..” The same day I got the EPA’s answers, I also learned something else. Here’s the backstory.
BL: First I contacted customer service. I’m talking with Dr. Graham Peaslee, of the University of Notre Dame. I was referred to him by the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor, which works with him closely on PFAS-testing. And then, customer service said, no, it's actually made in China. I’m recounting my month’s long correspondence with Hush Puppies shoes. So, finally they sent me to their law office and their spokesperson contacted me. He was from a firm representing Wolverine International. I explained I was trying to find out what currently makes the leather water resistant. I wondered, because they discontinued the use of long-chain, which caused such problems in Rockford. And now he's not returning any calls. If PFAS is being used on shoes sold by Wolverine, I’ll have more questions, such as: What about where they're being manufactured in terms of the wastewater or the air emissions?
Graham Peaslee: Oh, absolutely. And environmental problems are burgeoning in China.
BL: And here in the U.S., there’s another concern, as Peaslee explains.
Peaslee: We're also disposing of shoes at the end of life. And each of those shoes is going to be with its wonderful fluorine coating. They’re going to be put in the landfill where it continues to dribble out over the next 30 to 50 years.
BL: Back to my saga: Having no luck with the company, I had turned to non-profits that advocate reductions in toxins.
BL: Did you happen to find out anything about my questions about what Hush Puppies are using for their water resistance? No luck there, either. But within days, Dr. Peaslee had been sent various brands of shoes. And finally, I had an answer.
Peaslee: It was highly fluorinated. And I said, OK, it looks like it's PFAS-treated.
BL: He also tested the spray-on waterproofing made by Hush Puppies. Its label says “Environmentally-Friendly Formula.” But he found PFAS in that as well.
Peaslee: There's certainly no law in the U.S. that they can't use the stuff.
BL: Soon there was bigger news. Dr. Peaslee had sent the items to Indiana University for further testing. The results prompted the Ecology Center to issue a press release: C-8 had been found in Hush Puppies and Keds shoes, at what they termed “very high levels.” C-8, as in the C-8 health study. C-8 as in long-chain. Long-chain, as in the legacy of tannery waste in Rockford. And high levels of C-6, a short chain PFAS, were found in the spray and other shoe brands.
BL: OK, so both short-chain and long-chain PFAS can legally be in products we buy. As for our drinking water, there are no federal enforceable limits for that either. Consequently, when it comes to municipal water, well water, even bottled water, testing is not federally mandated. As for home filters: NSF International is the gold standard for certification. If companies want to advertise their filters as PFAS-removers, NSF only certifies them down to the federal advisory, which currently is 70 parts per trillion. So consumers can’t be sure which filters, if any, do more.
Judith Enck: Here’s the bad news: No one in government has a handle on this issue, and if they say they do, they're not being truthful.
BL: Judith Enck served as an EPA Regional Administrator during the Obama Administration. Along with mandating enforceable limits, she thinks the EPA should designate PFAS chemicals as “hazardous materials,” so impacted communities can qualify as Superfund sites.
Enck: …to get the remediation done. You know, putting carbon filters on a drinking water supply doesn’t get to the source of the contamination and get it remediated.
BL: What about the Clean Air Act? Air emissions containing PFAS from manufacturing are a potential source of contamination. Currently, PFAS isn’t federally regulated in air, either. The EPA webpage entitled: “PFAS Laws and Regulations” says, “We may require phase-outs of the use of specific chemicals like PFAS, if effective and feasible alternatives exist.” Enck suggests we may see faster action at the state level.
Enck: I think it's imperative that states pass drinking water standards for these chemicals, and that they do it quickly.
BL: Some states have gone ahead and adopted enforceable limits. Michigan has proposed doing so for a variety of PFAS chemicals, at levels considerably lower than the federal advisory. Washington State has gone so far as to ban PFAS in firefighting foam and food packaging. Some say we should carefully consider economic impacts before rushing into PFAS legislation. Others would rather we err on the side of caution—with not only PFAS, but all potentially toxic chemicals. Judith Enck says:
Enck: There are 80,000 chemicals used in commerce today and only a few hundred have really been tested. You should look at the precautionary principle.
BL: Common in Europe, the precautionary principle requires products to be proven safe before getting on the market. The U.S. has not embraced this concept. Here, the tendency is to presume products are safe until proven otherwise.
Evan Pratt: I have never seen an environmental regulatory law get passed until things got just ridiculously terrible.
BL: Evan Pratt is Washtenaw County’s Water Resources Commissioner. He feels the following formula can have its downsides.
Pratt: You have to balance the economy and the environment.
BL: He tells me that in the past, Michigan had a “Polluter Pay Law.”
Pratt: For a period of time through 1994, if a company was found to have contaminated or polluted with a toxic chemical, they were required to clean it all up. After that, in 1995, the full clean-up wasn't required and some of the standards were relaxed, as far as what's acceptable in the environment.
BL: Cleanups aren’t the only costs. There’s testing, water treatment, health monitoring, medical treatments—the list goes on. Some say the bill for all that shouldn’t be on taxpayers. Here’s Dr. Rebecca Mueninck of the Ecology Center.
Rebecca Mueninck: The things that we have right now in Michigan, like our screening levels or action levels, don't necessarily put the burden to pay for cleanup on manufacturers. So that's why things like lawsuits are important to do that, so we can actually recoup some of those costs that the state is now paying, or communities are paying. For example, in Ann Arbor with our water treatment here, we're paying that on our water bills.
BL: If Michigan approves strict PFAS limits, there’s no denying there will be some economic pain. The State’s Environmental Rules Review Committee, created in 2018, recently voted to delay the proposed PFAS rules. Note that by statute, the committee’s 12 members must include representatives from manufacturing and industry. I spoke with environmental chemist Dr. Rick Rediske, of Grand Valley State University. He works with citizens to address PFAS contamination.
BL: Will companies have to raise prices or close down, do you think, if they are the ones that have to pay for cleanups?
Rick Rediske: We will get some of that. A lot of companies went bankrupt because of hazardous waste landfills, things like that, back in the 70’s and 80’s, and that will happen. Some plating companies may go out of business, I don’t know.
BL: Legislators can be reluctant to support policies that could hurt business or shutter industries. Many towns were built around the companies in question. Parchment, AKA “Paper City,” is home to Bob Barber, former mayor of nearby Plainwell. In 2018, Parchment’s drinking water was found to have very high levels of PFAS. Barber thinks legislators could have prevented that.
Bob Barber: We elect these people to be visionaries. We elect these people to foresee what problems might be. A bunch of mills start closing down, and what do they do? Oh, they are concerned about the unemployment and all that, which is all valid stuff. But at the same time, their number one job is to protect us, keep us safe. Not get us a job, but keep us safe.
BL: But some say with so many potential toxins in our modern world, the government cannot possibly eliminate risk. Nor should they try, lest we end up with an all-controlling government, and loss of freedoms. Others say government should at least assure consumers are making informed choices. Here I am at a local outdoor gear store.
Sounds of outdoor gear store.
BL: Do you know what PFOA or PFOS is, it’s a water-repellent chemical… do you know if you have clothes that don’t have that on it?
Store employee: I don’t know.
BL: I was advised to check with the manufacturers. I know this is far from just a shoe leather issue. So I made calls to a variety of companies.
BL: Asking through that route didn’t help either. There’s no law saying that if a product contains PFAS, that needs to be on labels, or otherwise publicly available. Dr. Rediske says…
Rediske: I think these studies need to get out there, and I think people will make the adjustments, because people are spending more money to buy safer materials. There was a big study on that people will spend extra to buy, to get sustainable materials.
BL: Interestingly, some say: Actually, safe products can be cheaper.
Nick Kingsley: They're using less reagents, they're using less solvents. The EPA is not going to have as many regulatory fines levied against them for the products they're making so they view it as if done the right way can be cheaper.
BL: Dr. Nick Kingsley is professor of Green Chemistry at the University of Michigan, Flint.
Kingsley: Green chemistry isn't a mandate from the government. Green chemistry isn't about following EPA regulations. Green chemistry is about doing things the right way upfront, because it’s the responsible thing to do as a chemist.
BL: When it comes to what to do about PFAS, some want to avoid economic pain and big government. Others are more comfortable being proactive. According to Kingsley, perhaps we can have both.
In “The Green Room,” I’m Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News.
DF: This segment concludes WEMU’s five-part Green Room series on PFAS. Please check out our website for the podcasts, transcripts and resources of the previous four segments. In fact, all our “Green Room” episodes—over 100 in the past seven years—are available on our website. Find them at the “on demand” drop-down at wemu.org. I’m David Fair and this is 89-1 WEMU FM and WEMU H-D-1, Ypsilanti.
November 19, 2019 Letter to the Michigan Environmental Rules Review Committee from 10 non-profit organizations including the Ecology Center, Ann Arbor, entitled “Conflict of Interest with Rule Set 2019-035 EG, Supplying Water to the Public (PFAS MCL)”
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