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Daily News Blog

18
Feb

PFAS Adds to the Legacy of Persistent Toxics Hurting Generations of People and the Environment

(Beyond Pesticides, February 18, 2022) A new analysis conducted by Safer States, and reported on by Environmental Health News (EHN), concludes that in 2022, at least 32 states will consider 210 potential laws to ban or restrict one category of so-called “legacy” chemicals — the PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) family of compounds. “Legacy” or “forever” chemicals are those whose historical use, including many decades ago in some instances, has led to their toxic persistence in the environment and in organisms. In recent years, scientists, health and environment advocates, and policy makers have begun to recognize these as very serious contaminants, and to call attention to their ubiquity and impacts. Beyond Pesticides has identified multiple instances of such “legacies” (including those related to the production of pesticides and particularly, the infamous DDT), and will here discuss both PFAS, and concerns about such legacy chemicals as they may impact food producers.

The term “legacy” often connotes the ongoing influence or impact — generally salutary — of an individual’s activity, or a set of principles or activity inherited from one’s forebears. It is an apt description, minus the “salutary” part, for legacy chemicals — toxic “gifts that keep on giving” via persistent contamination of environments and bodies (human and other). In recent years, PFAS chemicals are increasingly being found in soil samples, in foods, in various kinds of water bodies and waterways, and in many drinking water sources. The environmental persistence of these compounds stems from the fact that they do not break down readily in the environment; hence, the “forever” moniker. Indeed, they accumulate in the human body (and no doubt in the bodies of other organisms, though that is less well studied) and are showing up many decades later in natural resources.

The highly toxic, fluorinated PFAS family of chemicals includes more than 9,000 compounds and two high-profile subcategories: PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). PFAS compounds are associated, in humans, with occurrences of cancer (testicular, kidney, liver, and pancreatic), thyroid disease, high cholesterol, reproductive problems (pregnancy-induced hypertension, low birth weights, and decreased fertility), immune compromise, asthma, ulcerative colitis, developmental delays, and disruption of the endocrine system, which can have myriad systemic impacts.

PFAS are found in many industrial (aerospace, automotive, construction, electronics, and military) and consumer products, including personal care products and cosmetics, cleaning products, carpeting, cookware, stain- and water-resistant products (clothing, textiles, and furniture), firefighting foam, and food packaging, among others. Despite Congressional attempts to ban these compounds in consumer goods, their inclusion in food packaging and processing equipment, electronics, some cookware, cosmetics, and other goods continues to be legal federally. (See more on states’ responses, below.)

Historically, some of these compounds ended up as part of waste that was dumped after industrial and military uses. Perhaps not all misbehavior is historical: The Guardian has reported that the U.S. military very recently (2016–2020) incinerated more than 20 million pounds of PFAS foam next to environmental justice communities. This occurred despite the lack of any evidence that incineration destroys the PFAS compounds; indeed, burning it discharges these toxic chemicals “into the air and onto nearby communities, farms, and waterways.” These legacy industrial and consumer chemicals are currently released into the environment via such products and the waste stream. Human exposure to them happens primarily through personal use of PFAS-contaminated products, through consumption of contaminated water or food, or via occupational exposures.

Estimates put the number of people in the U.S. exposed to these chemicals via drinking water between 110 and 200 million. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) offers a PFAS map of the U.S. that shows just how pervasive the problem is. Areas with widespread PFAS contamination of drinking water include large swaths of the Northeast (especially Massachusetts, Rhode Island, southeast New Hampshire, eastern Pennsylvania, Long Island, New Jersey, and Delaware), as well as significant portions of Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Colorado, and California. Beyond those, the map represents military (and other) sites of PFAS contamination unrelated to drinking water.

There has been precious little activity at the federal level to deal with PFAS (and some other legacy chemicals.) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in 2019 that a “Comprehensive Nationwide PFAS Action Plan” would be forthcoming. Since 1998, EWG notes, “despite mounting evidence of PFAS’ toxicity and contamination, EPA has inexcusably dragged its feet. The [agency] has failed to set a legal limit for any PFAS in tap water, and its non-enforceable health advisory level for PFOA and PFOS is 70 times higher than what independent studies show is needed. In 2019, EPA announced a toothless ‘action plan’ that would do nothing to reduce ongoing PFAS releases or clean up legacy PFAS pollution.”

One small example of such negligence: at the very end of the Trump administration, the agency issued confirmation that high-density polyethylene (HDPE) containers used to store and transport pesticides are commonly treated with fluorine compounds to reduce risk of changes in chemical composition of the pesticides. Such treatment meant that the pesticide containers likely leached PFAS compounds into the pesticides, representing a potential and significant source of PFAS exposure throughout the country’s conventional agriculture sector.

Another is the 2020 discovery that an EPA registered mosquito pesticide, Anvil 10+10, contained PFAS compounds — thus exposing the public broadly when- and wherever it was deployed. Beyond Pesticides Community Resource and Policy Director Drew Toher commented, “This is an issue that cuts to the core of what’s wrong with our federal system for regulating pesticides. The finding makes it imperative that EPA review and disclose full pesticide formulations before allowing the public to be exposed to unknown hazards.”

With the advent of the Biden administration, there has been more effort to address the problem. In the Fall of 2021, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan announced an EPA PFAS Strategic Roadmap that purports to lay out a whole-of-agency approach to addressing PFAS. The EPA website notes, “The roadmap sets timelines by which EPA plans to take specific actions and commits to bolder new policies to safeguard public health, protect the environment, and hold polluters accountable. The actions described in the PFAS Roadmap each represent important and meaningful steps to safeguard communities from PFAS contamination. Cumulatively, these actions will build upon one another and lead to more enduring and protective solutions.”

For states and localities, who are on the front lines of PFAS contamination, this is welcome news and significantly tardy. Absent much protective action on forever chemicals at the federal level, including on persistent pesticides, states have been stepping up, particularly in the past five years or so, to deal with a problem that permeates many aspects of people’s lives.                                                                                                

The Safer States analysis sets out these particulars:

  • At least 19 states will consider regulation of PFAS, such as restricting use when such use is avoidable, requiring disclosure of PFAS when present in consumer goods, or restricting use in specific categories (e.g., cosmetics, textiles, and food packaging). AK, CA, CO, HI, IA, IL, MA, MD, MI, MN, NH, NC, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT, WA, WI
  • At least 17 states will consider policies on PFAS cleanup, management, and accountability, such as designating the chemicals as hazardous, restricting their disposal, or allocating resources toward cleanup. AK, CA, FL, IL, IN, MA, ME, MD, MI, MN, NH, NC, OK, RI, VT, WA, and WI
  • At least 19 states will consider legislation related to contamination of drinking water, groundwater, or soil with PFAS. AK, AZ, CT, FL, IA, IN, KY, ME, MN, NC, NH, NY, OH, RI, SC, VA, VT, WV, WI
  • At least three states will consider banning PFAS in products labeled as recyclable. HI, MD, NJ
  • At least 6 states will consider policies to strengthen existing safe-chemical policies for cosmetics or children’s products. CA, MA, MI, NY, VT, and WA

According to EHN, Safer States National Director Sarah Doll commented: “State legislatures recognize the severity of the toxic PFAS crisis we’re facing and they’re taking action. . . . [They] continue to lead the way in addressing these serious problems with urgency and innovative solutions.” Michigan State Senator Winnie Brinks issued a statement saying, “In Michigan, PFAS and other ‘forever chemicals’ have impacted my community for decades. We’ve made significant strides in assessing the scope of the problem statewide and filtering PFAS out of drinking water.”

Not only is the public exposed to such chemicals; those who work in manufactories that create products that include PFAS, or workers who use such products regularly, have higher exposures. Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families noted in 2021, “Firefighting foams without PFAS are already used successfully around the world, but outdated federal guidelines have kept foams containing PFAS in use for training and firefighting at U.S. commercial and military airports.” Across multiple states, firefighters have begun to bring lawsuits against manufacturers of the foams, charging that the companies knowingly made and sold products with these forever chemicals that put the workers’ health at risk. Others who may be at greater-than-average exposure risk include pregnant or lactating people, and young children.

PFAS compounds are not the only ones that exhibit extreme persistence in the environment and accumulation in bodies. Some legacy pesticides, and notoriously, DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and its breakdown metabolite DDE (dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene) are incredibly persistent in the environment. The insecticide DDT was banned in 1972, yet its impacts continue. Its primary metabolite, DDE, shows up in produce grown in soils that were treated — even decades ago.

Beyond Pesticides recently wrote about the Pesticide Data Program Annual Summary (conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture), which showed once again that residues of a number of legacy pesticides — including DDT and DDE — continue to be present in foods. (DDT and DDE were particularly present in collards, broccoli, carrots, radishes, and winter squash.) Beyond Pesticides has written about the ongoing impacts of legacy DDT/DDE exposure here, here, and here. It has reported on the impacts of POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants), such as legacy and banned pesticides, on animals. Legacy impacts also show up, for example, as contamination of former fruit orchards that were treated with lead arsenate pesticides as much as 70 years ago.

Certainly, pesticides are found broadly in soils, as reported here and here. But the ongoing detection of PFAS in various environments and soils is now threatening the ability of growers, including organic growers, to produce food that doesn’t harbor these compounds. This contamination often occurs via the spreading of biosolids fertilizer (aka “biosludge”). This is how that happens: PFAS compounds are discharged in wastewater and solid waste (from consumer and other products), and move the problem “downstream,” such that these chemicals inhabit biosolids fertilizers. These products are then sold and spread on agricultural land, contaminating local ground and surface waters, as well as animals that graze on such land and plants that are grown in the contaminated soils.

Environmental Health News reported in 2019 on this growing problem in Pennsylvania; PFAS showed up in the Maine dairy and livestock sector in 2016. The issue, as reported by ECORI News, has migrated to the general consumer sector, as wastewater treatment operations are barely treating biosolids, and then repackaging the contaminated (with PFAS, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and more) material as home fertilizer and compost.

A prime and very recent example of this biosolids problem in agriculture is that of a diversified crop operation, Songbird Farm in Unity, Maine. Farmers Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis, growers of Certified Organic grains and vegetables, recently learned that their fields are victims to such legacy PFAS contamination. They write in their website statement about the matter: “We were just blindsided to learn that our home farm and primary lease field were licensed for the spreading of bio-solids in the early 1990s, (24 years before we purchased our farm and moved to Unity). Bio-solids have been in the news recently for their correlation with PFAS chemical contamination. We hired a private soil scientist to sample and test our well water, and soil and produce. All three tests came back positive [for PFAS]. Our well water read at 400 times the state’s recommended thresh-hold. The results are preliminary and need to be cross-checked, but we feel it is critical that we stop our sales and have requested that our retail outlets pull our products from their shelves for now. This is not a product recall. This is a precautionary product pause while we gather more info.”

This family’s livelihood, and their investment of dollars and sweat and heart, are all on the line. Part of the farmers’ statement to their consumers contains this telling paragraph: “I can’t tell you how heart wrenching this is for us learn and now to communicate. In a world where we can all buy conventional produce and out of state organic vegetables and grains at a cheaper price any day of the week, the one currency we have as local organic growers is our transparency and the trust of our customers. It’s hard for us to visualize right now what the future of our farm business might look like. But if there is a future for Songbird Farm, we think transparency is the way to get there.” They note that although Maine has no guidelines on acceptable levels of PFAS in vegetables, the state’s Center for Disease Control & Prevention has already begun work on establishing specific produce guidelines.

This situation exemplifies how “live” this PFAS issue is, and how behind the eight ball governments often are in contending with these emerging contaminants. The negligence and/or slow pace of EPA, FDA (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration), and Congress in addressing the PFAS problem has spurred many states to step in and up to do so themselves as this tranche of legislation reported on by Safer States illustrates.

These most-recent PFAS discoveries, and state legislative efforts to deal with them, underscore not only the federal failures, but also, the urgency and gravity of realigning federal and state agencies so that precaution becomes the guiding watchword. Legacy/forever chemical contamination is a dramatic demonstration of how the historical, non-precautionary ethic in the U.S. can cause egregious harm — even years and decades hence. Government regulation should, at the very least, stop making the problem worse through continued permitting of the use of PFAS compounds and toxic pesticides. See more at BeyondPesticides.org.

Source: https://www.ehn.org/pfas-regulations-2656548458/states-step-up-on-pfas

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

 

 

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