SAN FRANCISCO – Scientists recommend treating PFAS chemicals as one class of chemicals and avoiding all nonessential uses of these “forever chemicals,” according to a peer-reviewed article published today in Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
The authors—16 scientists from universities, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the European Environment Agency, and NGOs—say the extreme persistence and known toxicity of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) that have been studied render traditional chemical-by-chemical management dangerously inadequate. The article lays out how businesses and government can apply a class-based approach to reduce harm from PFAS.
“The science on PFAS chemicals is clear: the best way to protect public health from these ‘forever chemicals’ is to prevent them from entering the environment,” said Anna Reade, a staff scientist with NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and a co-author of the article. “It’s reckless to think regulating the thousands of PFAS chemicals one-by-one could ever reverse the severe damage these chemicals have and will continue to render to human health, our drinking water, and the natural world. The class approach proposed is both scientifically sound and critical to protecting public health and the environment,” said Reade.
For decades, industry has created thousands of different PFAS chemicals, many of which are found in the bodies of virtually every person in America. PFAS can be found in carpeting, food packaging, cookware, clothing, cosmetics, and even firefighting foam. PFAS chemicals do not break down easily, can spread quickly through the environment and are associated with a long list of harmful health effects, including cancer and developmental and reproductive harm.
"PFAS are a complex class of chemicals, but there is a clear pattern of persistence and potential for health harm that unites them all," said retired NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, who co-authored the article. "The use of any PFAS should be avoided whenever possible."
Some governments and retailers have already taken action. For example, some states have regulated the entire class of PFAS for use in certain products. Maine and Washington have banned all PFAS in food contact materials. Washington, New York, New Hampshire, and Colorado have banned most uses of PFAS-containing firefighting foam and a similar bill in California is currently being considered. California’s Safer Consumer Products program has also proposed to regulate PFAS in carpets and rugs. The article authors recommend expanding such regulation to all nonessential uses.
On the retailer front, IKEA phased out all PFAS in its textile products and Levi Strauss & Co. has banned the use of all PFAS in their products as of January 1, 2018. Home improvement chains Lowes and Home Depot have stopped selling carpeting made with PFAS.
“The best available science indicates that urgent action needs to be taken by policymakers, retailers, and manufacturers to prevent the use of PFAS chemicals, which are among the most harmful, ubiquitous chemicals ever unleashed by the chemical industry, and to clean them up from our exposure environment as much as possible,” added Reade.
Take Action on Toxic PFAS (NRDC Instagram)
Protect People from Toxic PFAS Chemicals (NRDC website)
Managing PFAS As a Class (Anna Reade blog)
NOTE: The press release was amended on July 1, 2020 to correct an error about the PFAS policy at Levi Strauss & Co. The release originally said the company had committed to a phase out of PFAS, but the chemicals have been banned in Levi Strauss products.
NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.