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Commentary Energy & Environment

Maryland PIRG: What’s Next for Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’?

Maryland PIRG
Photo by Angela Breck.

By Emily Scarr

The writer is the Maryland PIRG director.

I am grateful the Maryland legislature has taken bold, bipartisan action to protect Maryland families and firefighters from PFAS. The state Senate and House of Delegates voted unanimously to pass the George “Walter” Taylor Act to restrict the use and disposal of toxic PFAS chemicals. Del. Sara Love (D-Montgomery) and Sen. Sarah Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) sponsored the bill, and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) signed it into law April 21.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of more than 9,000 toxic chemicals that are used to make a wide variety of products water and grease resistant. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to these chemicals, even in small amounts over time, has been linked to serious health effects including cancer, thyroid disruption and reduced vaccine response.

Despite this threat, the Maryland Department of the Environment does not have mandatory testing for PFAS nor strong limits on PFAS in water. Sampling from the MDE last fall found PFOA and PFOS, two types of PFAS with the longest history of use, in 75% of the of the samples from water treatment plants that serve 70% of Maryland’s population. Additional testing released April 28 found PFOA and PFOS in 43% of the water samples tested, and in more than half of aquifers tested that are not fully isolated from ground or surface water. There is also known contamination at more than a dozen military sites across the state, and in the fall, MDE issued its first fish consumption advisory for some fish in the Piscataway Creek.

PFAS are often called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in bodies or in the environment. So the more they get used, the more they build up and the bigger the risk they pose to our health. This is particularly concerning for our kids who could be exposed to these chemicals for decades to come.

The George “Walter” Taylor Act is a strong start at addressing the problem. It is named for a Maryland firefighter who died from cancers linked to PFAS exposure. Cancer is the leading line-of-duty cause of death for firefighters, causing 75% of firefighter deaths, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Christine Taylor, Walter’s widow, has been an outspoken advocate for the new law. Earlier this year she explained to the state legislature, “Firefighters like Walter are the canary in the coal mine for these chemicals, which are putting all of us at risk as they make their way into the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.”

The measure will stop the use of PFAS in rugs and carpets and food packaging in Maryland and switch to safer alternatives for firefighting foam. This is a critical step in protecting our families and firefighters, but there is a lot more work to do to address Maryland’s PFAS problem.

In addition to concerns of PFAS in our drinking water and seafood, Maryland farmers are increasingly concerned that farms could become contaminated with PFAS due to the use of untested biosolids from wastewater treatment centers as fertilizers.

We are disappointed that Gov. Hogan has not directed the Department of the Environment to take bolder action on PFAS contamination. To protect our children and grandchildren from these toxic “forever chemicals,” we need to clean up the contamination in our state.

The Maryland Department of Environment, Gov. Hogan and whoever takes his place need rigorous testing and remediation plans for PFAS.

Maryland PIRG would recommend a four-pronged response:

  • Turn off the tap on new contamination by limiting industrial discharges of PFAS in the state and further restrict the use of PFAS;
  • Set health protective limits for PFAS in our water and food;
  • Regularly and comprehensively test for PFAS in groundwater, drinking water, wastewater and seafood; and
  • Hold the chemical industry accountable for the environmental and public health harm they have caused so taxpayers aren’t left to foot the bill.

These steps will likely require new regulations and laws, but this year’s demonstration of legislators’ bipartisan determination to address this growing crisis should serve as a powerful starting point for action.

I hope Gov. Hogan and candidates vying for his position are paying attention.

Our families, firefighters and farmers are counting on it.