Opinion: Pass the PFAS Protection Act

State Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) is the sponsor of a bill that would ban PFAS chemicals in Maryland. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

You may have heard of the toxic chemicals used in Teflon, but you may not know that these largely unregulated “PFAS” (short for polyfluoroalkyl substances) can be found in many products you use every day, and even in your body.

PFAS are a class of more than 9,000 chemicals used to make products grease- or waterproof. These man-made chemicals don’t break down in the environment, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” The toxins build up in our blood over time, a dangerous and potentially lethal combination.

Forever chemicals increase the risk of birth defects and lower fertility; boost cholesterol levels and cancer risks, and more. These chemicals are common in our drinking water, food, packaging; our clothes, rugs and carpets, and in our bays and rivers. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they are likely already in your blood and in the blood of every other American.

There is very little federal or state regulation of forever chemicals, and weak federal oversight to ensure safety before it hits the market. This leaves states in an endless game of whack-a-mole with toxic chemicals. We don’t even know the full extent of the contamination because, like many states, Maryland does not require testing.

We need to pass the PFAS Protection Act, now. In the present legislative session in Annapolis, we have an opportunity to act on this enormous and largely invisible public health threat, to turn off the tap on these forever chemicals and treat them like the hazardous materials they are.

Del. Sara Love (D-Montgomery)

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Sarah Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) and Del. Sara Love (D-Montgomery), proposes a statewide ban on forever chemicals in firefighting foam, food packaging, and many other consumer products. It also would control how they’re disposed.

Making this law would mean Marylanders would no longer have to worry about fighting long and costly battles on their own. Widespread awareness of the problem came in 1999, when a series of class-action lawsuits against Dupont were filed in West Virginia, and revealed that the company knew the chemicals were toxic since the 1950s. The case led Dupont to stop making forever chemicals in its Ohio River Valley plant, but the legal wrangling still isn’t over and much damage has been done. A risk assessment study released in 2004 found that 632,468 pounds of PFOA had flowed through plant pipes into the Ohio River.

The chemical industry is largely self-regulated. One of the arguments against regulation is that PFAS chemicals are essential to manufacturing. Yet, in all the uses that would be regulated by the PFAS Protection Act, there are alternative chemicals that perform the same function and are much less harmful to public health and the environment. PFAS are not essential.

Along with contributing to public safety, the PFAS Protection Act also contributes to a more equitable Maryland. From food packaging and clothes, to rugs and carpets, products containing forever chemicals are commonly disposed of in landfills or incinerators. It is well documented that these sites are often located in low-income and marginalized communities, meaning that these communities are at a much greater threat to PFAS contamination. The PFAS Protection Act seeks to protect these communities by banning the mass disposal of these chemicals by incineration and landfilling.

As a young person fighting for a more just, equitable and healthy Maryland, I urge you to join grass-roots organizations like the Sunrise Movement and advocates like Maryland PIRG in endorsing the PFAS Protection Act.

In a state that has played such an influential role in the nation’s rich democratic history, we must not let private entities, driven by their desire for endless profit at the expense of human health and prosperity, harm our communities and contaminate the most essential elements to human survival. We must treat PFAS as the hazardous chemicals that they are. We must prevent them from building up further in our environment and in our blood. We must pass the PFAS Protection Act.

— JESSE CHLADIL

The writer is an organizer and member of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led grass-roots organization fighting for a Green New Deal.