The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced its intention to initiate regulations on per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The federal agency directed 28 questions to manufacturers and formulators of PFAS compounds to gather important data on the substances before issuing any new rules.
PFAS are found in a wide range of consumer products that people use daily such as cookware, pizza boxes and stain repellants. Most people have been exposed to PFAS. Certain PFAS can accumulate and stay in the human body for long periods of time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans.
That last point is heavily debated, however. The EPA is seeking more information on the specific types of PFAS detected in wastewater streams, the effectiveness of existing methods to measure the effluent available to manufacturers, and what companies already may be doing to control releases. In theory, this information would allow the EPA to create informed effluent limits that take into account available technology for detecting and treating PFAS.
We are watching this raging debate over safe exposure levels of PFAS play out in real time, in regulatory agencies, courtrooms, and headlines across the country. It is just one example of the tangled mess that exists at the intersection of science, justice, and the economy—one that is often characterized by politically and financially motivated “advocates” rushing to enact public policy that meets their pre-ordained outcomes rather than having the patience to base regulatory and judicial decisions on the totality of the best existing research.
Some of the likely actions the EPA will take—such as the establishment of national drinking water limits for the two most studied PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS—make sound scientific sense. But the EPA announcement has triggered ominous warnings that additional layers of regulation, particularly the creation of standards for PFAS compounds whose toxicity has not been determined and that may be difficult to accurately measure with current technologies, would unleash a flood of tort litigation.
We are already seeing examples of this as several states have taken action to implement a patchwork quilt of regulatory standards and, at least in the case of Wisconsin, are encouraging private law firms to initiate litigation to enforce those standards.
The PFAS debate impacts every American, from the companies that manufacture and use the compounds, to the trial attorneys lining up to force those corporations to pay billions of dollars in settlements, to the consumers left fearful of everything from nonstick pans to tap water.
What is lacking in the debate are clear answers on the true public health risks of exposure to these compounds. All stakeholders have a responsibility to be truthful about a compound that potentially touches so many facets of our lives. PFAS have been used for decades in clothing, packaging, and lifesaving applications such as sealing aircraft and fighting fires. PFAS compounds are also used in 5G wireless networks to increase the speed in which data is transmitted. In a world that increasingly relies on such networks, the potential for an explosion of new uses for these compounds is exponential.
That’s why it’s never been more important to honestly assess what we know, and don’t know, about PFAS. And that’s just what we’ve set out to do.
This week the Center for Truth in Science announced that it has selected two research groups to receive its inaugural grants to complete a systematic analysis of the existing literature on PFAS to develop a more comprehensive analysis of the current state of fact-based scientific evidence on the compounds.
Existing research has provided an enormous amount of information, but a distinct lack of wisdom. As a result of this and the enormous political pressure to address these compounds, regulatory decisions made on PFAS can be subject to non-science pressures. By commissioning these two unique studies, the Center hopes to provide all stakeholders the objective tools to support science-based decision making in regulatory forums and courtrooms.
When regulatory and judicial decisions are driven by fact-based scientific evidence and sound risk assessment principles, policymakers have the opportunity to make decisions that balance public health, economic, and societal values, and—even more importantly—give consumers the tools, knowledge, and confidence to make informed decisions in every aspect of their lives.