After World War II, the DuPont chemical company began marketing Teflon, the miraculous-seeming nonstick agent sold on pots and pans around the world.
Then a farmer who lived near a DuPont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, watched 190 of his cows die with blackened teeth, swollen organs, and mysterious illnesses. The farmer and his wife got cancer.
The farmer called a lawyer, who filed a class action lawsuit made famous in the movie “Dark Waters.” EPA intervened and phased out a chemical used to make Teflon, called PFOA, which was linked to increased risk of cancer. PFOA was pulled from the market in 2015. But there are still thousands of related chemicals – called polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS – that are still widely used in consumer products and still being found in rivers, streams, and drinking water across the U.S.
A bill being debated in the Maryland General Assembly would ban this broader category of chemicals – PFAS -- in all food packaging, new rugs and carpets, and firefighting foam. Manufacturers often use PFAS chemicals for their water-repelling, grease-cutting, and flame-retardant properties
Here’s state Delegate Sara Love, a Democrat from Montgomery County, and sponsor of the PFAS Protection Act.
“PFAS have been linked to serious illness, including testicular, kidney, liver and pancreatic cancer, reproductive problems, low birth weights, as well as weakened immunity among children,” Love said during a recent hearing on the bill. “In addition, these chemicals remain in our bodies and rarely break down in the environment, earning them the nickname, ‘forever chemicals.’”
The bill is supported by NRDC, Waterkeepers Chesapeake, Upper Potomac Riverkeeper and other environmental organizations – as well as by the Professional Firefighters of Maryland.
Jeff Buddle, a vice president of the firefighters organization, testified during a recent hearing he wants PFAS banned because of concerns that it could be contributing to cancer in firefighters. “What this bill would do is eliminate one of the sources of the toxic chemicals for really the next generation of firefighters, to hopefully make sure they are not exposed to the chemicals that cause cancer in the first place,” Buddle said.
Fighting against the legislation are manufacturers that use the chemicals, including the W. L. Gore company in Cecil County, Maryland, makers of waterproof Gore-Tex fabrics.
Michael Ratchford is a lobbyist for the company. “We believe the definition of PFAS is overly broad and could lead to the unintended restriction of fluoropolymers,” he said. “Gore uses fluoropolymers to make products of high societal value, including implantable medical devices, Gore-Tex membranes...and products used by the pharmaceutical industry to make Covid-19 vaccines.”
State Delegate Brian Chisolm, a Republican from Anne Arundel County, said he worries the legislation would be bad for business in Maryland.
“I don’t think everybody grasps how many different products we actually use these polymers in, especially when we get into electronics,” Chisolm said. “Are we going to be getting into preventing anyone from producing a cell phone or a circuit board? We do a lot of that in the state of Maryland.”
However, from a competitive perspective, Maryland is not alone in moving against PFAS chemicals. Last year, at least 15 states passed bills to restrict or ban PFAS in consumer products and firefighting foam.
And at the federal level, the Biden Administrations has pledged to take action on “forever chemicals” by designating PFAS as hazardous substances and by enforcing limits on them in drinking water. These chemicals may be stain-resistant – but some of this looks like it’s going to stick.
The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo credit: State Del. Sara Love, D-Montgomery County