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Working to ban a 'forever chemical'

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Rachel Baye
/
Maryland State House

Maryland lawmakers are looking to ban a class of chemicals known as Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, that the Environmental Protection Agency says can cause harmful health effects in humans.

The chemicals have turned up in drinking water sources throughout Maryland as well as in crabs, rockfish and oysters, according to the state Department of the Environment.

PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they never break down. And they’re everywhere, in non-stick cookware, food containers, fire-fighting foam and even the carpet under your feet.

They create a barrier between grease and oil. So, for example, the greasy food in that fast food container doesn’t stain your clothes. And they smother fires.

Del. Sara Love, a Montgomery County Democrat sponsoring the House version of the bill to ban them, calls that “a lovely purpose.”

But, she adds, the health effects “are so bad that we really need to stop using that and move to something else.”

Studies using lab animals have linked exposure to high levels of PFAS with liver and immune system damage, birth defects and increased risk of cancer.

Del. Love’s bill and one coming up for a hearing in the Senate’s committee on Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Wednesday would ban the use of the chemicals, in fire fighting foam, food containers and rugs and carpets.

Love says the move to ban it in fire fighting foam comes from firefighters themselves,

“You know, this is a priority bill for the firefighters because not only do they not want to in their foam, they don't want it burning when they walk in,” she said. 

Sen. Pamela Beidle, a sponsor of the senate bill, says she hears frequently from her constituents about PFAS in their water.

“They're very concerned about the results that we're getting for testing our water,” she said. “And it's particularly prevalent around the military installations and the airport.”

Beidle’s district includes BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport and Fort Meade.

EPA and MDE studies have found elevated levels of PFAS in water bodies near airports and military installations because of the heavy use of firefighting foam at those places.

Similar bills failed to get out of committee during last year’s session.

Emily Scarr, state director of the advocacy group Maryland PIRG, says it was difficult to talk to lawmakers with pandemic restrictions in place and that many of them were unfamiliar with the issue. But, she added, things have changed.

“Since our session wrapped up a number of states have implemented the food packaging policy or bans on foam,” she said. That “paves the way for it to be even more likely to pass this year because there's a lot of strong precedent from other states.”

Love says eight other states have passed some version of a PFAS ban since Maryland’s General Assembly adjourned last April, that chemical companies are developing alternatives and that fast food companies are getting rid of PFAS in their packaging.

“And a lot of the big retailers are no longer selling rugs and carpets with intentionally added PFAS,” she said. So, legislation, the market, public outcry are all trying to move this needle on this very dangerous and ever present substance.”

But there is one problem, says Bob Philips, the legislative director of the Maryland State Firemen’s Association, which represents some 350 volunteer fire companies. How do they get rid of the foam with PFAS they have stored in the backs of the firehouses all over the state?

They can buy what they need of alternative foam and use it, he said. “But we've got all of these chemicals in five-gallon totes stacked up in fire companies sitting there. How do we get rid of them?”

Philips agrees PFAS is dangerous and says it should be banned. There are alternatives, he says. But he’s heard estimates it could cost as much as $5,000 to get rid of one of those five-gallon drums.

“There's some fire companies out here that could have 200 gallons,” he said. “It's not unheard of. And so that's quite a lot of money for a volunteer fire company to have to pay to get rid of them.” 

He says he hopes they can find a way around that problem.