The use of “chemicals” always sounds bad, especially if they have unpronounceable laboratory names. Nobody really wants chemicals in their food, water, house, clothing, or landfills. But what is a chemical? Look it up and you’ll find that any substance consisting of matter is a chemical, including every liquid, solid, and gas. That means any pure substance or any mixture, natural or manmade. The only things that are not chemicals are those not made up of matter: things like light, heat, sound, or ideas.
When someone calls for eliminating chemicals, therefore, it is vital to define very precisely what they seek to ban. Even manmade chemicals include practically everything in our consumer world, so specifics are essential. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is ratcheting up its two-year plan to ban the manufacture, use, and disposal of PFAS, short for perfluoroalkyl substances and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Those sound horrible. Most people probably wouldn’t want to be even near anything sounding like that, so banning them sounds right. But what exactly are they?
Beginning with everyday products coated with Teflon, PFAS are a broad range of compounds that prevent sticking and that repel moisture. That includes most plastics, nonstick cookware, water-resistant clothing, and products that resist grease, water, and oil, such as pizza boxes, tents, sleeping bags, and even dental floss. But that’s not all. PFAS are also in photographs, computers, printers, cell phones, cars, air conditioners, laundry detergent, shampoo, lotion, soap, makeup, carpets, prescription bottles, glass and windows, and hundreds of medical devices, from implants and catheters to surgical mesh and sterile containers. These chemicals are central to the function of fire extinguishers and firefighting foam (which airports are required by law to use) and are important components of windmills and solar panels. PFAS are everywhere.
There were health concerns specific to a couple of types of PFAS, both of which were discontinued 20 years ago but in some form may remain in the environment, especially in landfills. Based on that concern, EPA is now proposing to designate a range of PFAS compounds, which are still commonly used, as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund. This includes a much broader range of substances for which the science is, at best, unsettled.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has a different view than EPA. CDC says, “Human health effects from exposure to low environmental levels of PFAS are uncertain.” Rather than calling for a ban, CDC simply says “more research is necessary to assess the human health effects” of a substance that is commonly found in nearly all people tested. That agency adds, “Finding a measurable amount of PFAS in serum does not imply that the levels of PFAS cause an adverse health effect.”
The EPA is nevertheless determined, calling a wide range of PFAS types “harmful substances” and “an urgent public health and environmental issue.” By lumping many types of PFAS together and ignoring the reality that there are thousands of types, many of which are not deemed harmful, the EPA in effect wants to ban entire categories. It vows “to hold polluters and other responsible parties accountable for their actions, ensuring that they assume responsibility for remediation efforts…”
We have learned to expect EPA’s punitive approach to all issues. So, it’s no surprise the regulators want retroactively to punish people who manufactured and/or disposed of chemicals that were not considered hazardous at the time, by listing them under the Superfund law.
According to the National Waste and Recycling Association, based on an estimated 16.1 billion gallons of leachate per year generated in the U.S., increased costs associated with PFAS management via CERCLA could top $6 billion per year. That’s because there is no “full-scale commercially proven PFAS treatment destruction technologies for landfill leachate.” EPA wants the chemicals removed but has no suggestions on how to accomplish that. Even the Sierra Club agrees that EPA guidance on PFAS disposal highlights “the fact that EPA does not have the monitoring methods or data to conclude that any of these methods are safe ways to contain PFAS wastes.”
The fact of the matter is a utopian world without chemicals is not possible, nor is it really even necessary. There are many chemicals that pose no risk to human health and are depended on by Americans in their everyday lives. The EPA is far ahead of the science when it comes to its proposed PFAS solutions. Its own website admits that it does not yet “fully understand” how to detect PFAS, how harmful PFAS are to humans, or how to dispose of them. Yet the agency wants to ban these chemicals and force onerous regulations upon manufacturers, consumers, and local governments. This is bureaucratic overreach at its worst.
Greg Walcher is the former head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and a Senior Policy Fellow with the Energy & Environment Legal Institute