Government

Bills to Regulate ‘Forever Chemicals’ Strongly Supported in Senate Committee Testimony

PROVIDENCE — A Senate committee discussion of so-called “forever chemicals” showed there is strong public sentiment against the hazardous substances that could be significantly regulated through proposed legislation.

In an online hearing May 5, the Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee took testimony concerning two bills aimed at setting limits on the uses and levels of the harmful class of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

“It’s a substance that we have to ban and make sure nobody uses anymore,” said Sen. James Seveney, D-Portsmouth, a sponsor of bill S0110 to prohibit PFAS from being used in food packaging.

The committee took testimony from guest legislators and members of the public on Seveney’s legislation and bill S0107, which would require the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) to establish maximum contaminate levels of PFSA in drinking water.

Bill 0107, sponsored by Sen. Walter Felag, D-Warren, would also set standards for PFAS in drinking, ground and surface waters while labeling the chemicals as hazardous substances.

Versions of the PFAS bills are under consideration in the House.

PFAS gained the critical moniker of “forever chemicals” because they fail to break down in the environment over time, instead collecting in wastewater treatment systems and water supplies. The Environmental Protection Agency describes PFAS as “a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals” that have been used in various industries in the United States since the middle of the previous century.

The products in which the chemicals appear range from clothing and takeout containers to household staples such as carpeting, paint and cleaning products. Flame-suppressing foam with PFAS is a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and at facilities where firefighting training occurs. The chemicals also have been detected in food, drinking water and animals, including fish.

Seveney recalled using the foam during his military service in the Navy, noting its dangers were unknown to sailors who at times even used the chemicals to clean themselves.

“Once it gets into your body, it stays,” Seveney said, noting his food packaging bill was a companion to Felag’s bill to regulate PFAS in water. “It’s the same chemical, it’s the same concerns.”

The EPA website says most people have been exposed to PFAS, which “can accumulate and stay in the human body for long periods of time” and have negative impacts on human health.

“Studies indicate that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals,” according to the EPA. “Both chemicals have caused tumors in animals. The most consistent findings are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations” with limited findings of immune system effects, cancer from PFOA and thyroid hormone distribution from PFOS.

Yet the federal agency only issues health advisories when PFAS substances are detected in drinking water at a level exceeding 70 parts per trillion, while no corrective response to exposure and contamination is required.

The prevalence and health risks of PFAS were only recognized in recent years. Researchers with the Sources, Transport, Exposure & Effects of PFAS program led by the University of Rhode Island and Harvard University has found links between PFAS and thyroid disease, low birth weight and cardiovascular disease.

Rhode Island lawmakers declined to pass legislation in 2018 and 2019 to set safety thresholds for the chemicals, with DOH and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management calling for more time to receive national guidance and continue research and testing on state water sources.

A 2019 DOH test of all of the state’s major drinking water supplies and every school with its own well found 44 percent of water systems had at least one PFAS compound. Additionally, the tests determined one water system contained PFAS greater than 70 parts per trillion and 13 water systems had greater than 20 parts per trillion. Nine schools and one preschool contained 4 parts per trillion.

The Senate committee received written testimony from various groups and individuals on the PFAS bills, including opposition to both measures from the American Chemical Council. Many of the written testimonials, and the eight callers who testified by phone May 5, expressed support for the legislation.

Michelle Beaudin, manager of the Rhode Island Toxics Program for the advocacy group Clean Water Action, said PFAS in products such as nonstick cookware coatings and popcorn bags affects millions of Americans, while the negative health effects are believed to disproportionately impact low-income residents and communities of color. But she noted PFAS are only found in 40 percent of food packaging, so there are nontoxic alternatives that can be used in future.

In response to a question from committee member Sen. Bridget Valverde, D-North Kingstown, Beaudin said there is no easy way for the public to learn which packages contain PFAS.

Michael Bradlee, president of the Community Compost Depot in Providence, said having a single standard for PFAS in packaging would be helpful for organizing items received by his operation. Without clear guidelines there is confusion about proper disposal of materials, producing business risks for the composting sector and impacts on environmental health, he said.

Polly Berry, a retired nurse from Warwick, said she and other health-care professionals fielded questions from many patients about how to protect themselves from PFAS, but there was never a good answer.

Greg Howard, a public-health scientist in Providence, said he has worked on numerous cases involving PFAS, a category which he said covers 5,000 chemicals. Without regulation, he said the chemical industry can simply switch to another similar substance when one is banned.

“This really is an unnecessary class of chemicals,” Howard said.

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