As the dust settles from this historic election, it is important we take a moment to look forward to how the outcome may alter the role of science in the next administration.
Joe Biden pledged throughout his campaign to “follow the science” to determine how to address the Covid-19 pandemic. This could be a positive development if it helps to control the spread of the virus and spur an economic recovery. However, I caution his team to ensure that the facts on which they rely are based on objective and unbiased research, not on agenda-driven science intended to accomplish a pre-ordained outcome.
How this promise will impact public policy—both in dealing with the virus and in areas such as environmental policy—is yet to be seen. The first test—the regulation of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) compounds—may come early in a Biden presidency.
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) announced plans to introduce legislation that would require the EPA to set cleanup standards and enforceable drinking water limits for some PFAS compounds and said the bill would send a signal to the Biden Administration that controlling PFAS is “a top priority in the new Congress.” A similar bill was passed by the House in the previous Congress but never moved in the Senate.
PFAS compounds have been used for more than 60 years and are critical components in products as varied as semiconductor chips, food packaging, medical stents, firefighting foam, aerospace components, non-stick cookware, and stain and water-resistant fabric. They break down slowly and can survive extreme variations in temperature and air and water pressure, which means that trace amounts of the compounds are found in the bloodstreams of most Americans.
The two original PFAS compounds—PFOA and PFOS—have been voluntarily phased out decades ago because of the potential dangers of long-term exposure to humans. Efforts by government agencies and manufacturers are underway in many states to clean up sites contaminated by these two compounds.
Hundreds of other PFAS compounds have been introduced to replace PFOA and PFOS. At the heart of the debate is whether and at what levels of exposure these “next generation” PFAS compounds are potentially harmful to humans. On this, the scientific jury is decidedly out.
In fact, a recent workshop reviewing Federal research into the toxicity of PFAS compounds conducted by the National Academy of Sciences pointed out significant gaps in the scientific facts about PFAS. From the discussion, the independent scientists convened by the NAS identified fundamental scientific data gaps that “mechanisms of action and role of PFAS parent and metabolites are not well understood” and “knowledge of the specific biological pathways and networks leading to the development of human outcomes is limited.”
While the Environmental Protection Agency has yet to establish federal drinking water standard for PFAS exposure, it did establish a voluntary health advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS in 2016. For context, 1 ppt is the equivalent of one grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Several states have enacted stricter standards that are well below the EPA’s health advisories. These state regulations create a complex patchwork quilt of regulatory requirements resulting in compliance nightmare for any business that operates on a regional or national level.
Meanwhile, the trial bar understands that unsettled science and disparate regulatory standards make PFAS lawsuits a potential gold mine for the simple reason that almost every American is a potential plaintiff. For them, the equation is simple: more plaintiffs mean more pressure that attorneys can bring on companies to settle disputes for millions of dollars in legal fees before a case ever gets to court.
Imagine the fear-mongering marketing campaigns to recruit potential plaintiffs: “Drink water? Got cancer? You could be entitled to significant compensation. Call the number on your screen now!”
Mr. Biden’s pledge to follow the science is a noble one. But the most important word in that promise is the most innocuous: the. We cannot afford to fall into the trap of following my science or your science—we must have the courage and discipline to follow THE science.
But until the science on PFAS exists, the mass tort machine will continue to aggressively pursue litigation that relies on fragmented and conflicting scientific “facts” in order to force companies to pay billions in settlements or risk having their reputation, integrity, and shareholder value shredded in the public square.
Instead, we need to make an investment in independent, objective, and time-tested scientific analysis to determine the truth about the effects of PFAS on humans. Advancing public policy initiatives on scientific issues without such complete evidence—no matter how well intentioned—is irresponsible, short-sighted, and decidedly non-scientific.