Remember Whac-A-Mole? It’s that old-timey arcade game where you hold a mallet and smack a cartoonish mole that pops up out of a hole. Just like you, I have no idea why we were hitting fake animals for entertainment, but that’s not my point here. The enduring legacy of this game is that it became a colloquialism. No matter how good you were at whacking moles, you could rest assured that another one would pop back up, and so Whac-A-Mole became an expression for similar phenomena in real life. It’s commonly used when fixing computer programming bugs and when news outlets work to debunk misinformation. It’s also the analogy that I thought of when I read the latest news on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
The Health Concerns Associated with PFAS
No, I didn’t just type a random series of letters on my keyboard. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, abbreviated to PFAS, are a classification of synthetic chemical types. I’ll dive into the details of them in just a moment, but first let me share the latest news with you. Last month, the US Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) proposed new drinking water regulations for six different types of PFAS. Those regulations are now going through a public commentary period, and the EPA anticipates finalizing them by the end of the year. Because of the toxicity of these chemicals to the human body, the EPA projects that regulating them will prevent thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of illnesses.
If you, like me, are an average citizen of the United States of America, you might respond to this news with a perfunctory, “Oh, good.” If, on the other hand, you are a public health expert who thinks long and hard about the pervasiveness of unregulated synthetic chemicals commonly used in commercial products, you might respond to this news with, “About dang time, and now what about the other PFAS?”
You see, PFAS go by another nickname - forever chemicals. From the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (“NIEHS”) information page on PFAS: “PFAS molecules have a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms. Because the carbon-fluorine bond is one of the strongest, these chemicals do not degrade easily in the environment.” By design, these chemicals are hardy. That said, though they don’t naturally break down, they can break apart into smaller and smaller chains of molecules. As a result, PFAS can make their way into our air, water, soil, and food. Once in our bodies, they have been found to bioaccumulate. Concerning, no?
Also from that NIEHS page: “The research conducted to date reveals possible links between human exposures to PFAS and adverse health outcomes. These health effects include altered metabolism, fertility, reduced fetal growth and increased risk of being overweight or obese, increased risk of some cancers, and reduced ability of the immune system to fight infections.” Even more concerning, no?
PFAS Are Everywhere
Now you might be wondering about the very thing I intentionally have not yet told you. Where can PFAS be found? It’s quite a list, and this isn’t exhaustive:
- Microwave popcorn bags
- Pizza boxes
- Grease-resistant paper
- Candy wrappers
- Non-stick cookware
- Cleaning products
- Dental floss
- Nail polish
- Rain jackets
- Stain-resistant fabrics
Part of the reason that PFAS are so pervasive is because of how many of them there are. As a chemical class, PFAS include more than 9,000 different chemicals. They’ve been around for over 70 years now, and until only the last couple of years, there has been basically no effort to regulate them at the federal level. Now to be clear, the current state of research does not show that every type of PFAS molecule is toxic to human health. The best way to describe the current state of research is that we genuinely don’t yet know just how bad they all might be, because they are notoriously difficult to study. To me though, the cautionary principle would suggest we err on the side of over-regulating, not under-regulating, these forever chemicals until we know better how safe they are.
Traditional Environmental Regulations Aren’t Enough Here
Which brings me back to the EPA news and Whac-A-Mole. Let’s say, hypothetically, that this proposed rule by the EPA goes through and is successful in reducing the concentration of those six chemicals in our waterways. Maybe it even emboldens the EPA, and they go after other PFAS, perhaps a few at a time. What would stop polluters from just switching to different PFAS or inventing whole new ones that offer the same performance characteristics?
Nothing would. It would be Whac-A-Mole, with some new potentially dangerous chemicals coming in to replace the now-regulated potentially dangerous chemicals. Which is a problem, because we simply don’t know enough about how dangerous ALL of these chemicals might be.
Think about what has to happen before a drugmaker can bring a new medication or vaccine to the marketplace. They must go through a rigorous process to prove that the drug or vaccine is both effective and safe, and then they must ask permission from a regulatory body before making it broadly available. All a chemical manufacturer has to do is convince their customers to buy whatever new wonder chemical they synthesize. Why don’t we require the same safety measures for chemicals used in consumer goods, especially when we know that those chemicals will disperse into the environment and bioaccumulate in our bodies?
We should. I’m incredibly grateful to the hardworking people at the EPA, but if we put solving this problem on them, it’s no better than handing them a mallet and telling them to start whacking thousands upon thousands of moles. If it were up to me, I’d say that anyone who manufactures PFAS should have to conclusively prove their safety before we let them put any in the marketplace.