Task force seeks to phase out use of “forever chemicals”

PFAS used in firefighting foam, everyday products create health hazards

A SPECIAL TASK FORCE is recommending that Massachusetts regulate and gradually phase out the sale of consumer products that use PFAS chemicals, one of a series of recommendations aimed at addressing the health and environmental impacts of the commonly used chemicals. 

As we get our hands around the issue, you realize how widespread PFAS is,” said task force co-chair Sen. Julian Cyr, noting that the chemicals are used in everything from clothing to cookware. 

PFAS, formally called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because of their long-lasting environmental impacts. They are widely used for industrial applications, such as manufacturing, and in consumer products including firefighting foams, non-stick cookware, and water-repellent clothing.  

In recent years, policymakers have been paying growing attention to the fact that these chemicals have gotten into the drinking water supply in many places, and in the soil and groundwater. High levels of exposure can lead to negative health consequences including certain types of cancer, thyroid disease, and high cholesterol. Firefighters have been outspoken about high rates of cancer within their profession, which they attribute to exposure to PFAS in firefighting gear and foams. 

“We need to do something for firefighters that…puts pressure on industry to say we can do better, we can find an alternative so we don’t say to firefighters this is all we’ve got,” said task force co-chair and House speaker pro tempore Kate Hogan. 

The state has already started regulating and testing for PFAS. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection set standards for safe levels in drinking water and has been testing public water systems and private wells. As of April 5, the state had tested over 1,000 public drinking water supplies and found PFAS levels that exceeded the safe level in 127. It tested nearly 1,200 private wells and found high PFAS levels in 21 communities.  

The Legislature has allocated more than $30 million in recent years for testing and remediation, and state officials plan to spend another $21 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money on PFAS remediation projects. This task force was formed in the fiscal 2021 budget to make comprehensive recommendations for how best to address the issue moving forward.  

The recommendations were passed unanimously on Wednesday by the 19-member commission, which included representatives from multiple state agencies, municipalities, and private experts. 

One major recommendation in the report is a gradual phase-out of consumer products that contain PFAS so they will no longer be made as of 2030. It recommends banning products where manufacturers “intentionally added” PFAS, a standard meant to exclude cases when a manufacturer gets a product from a supplier without knowledge of it scomponents. Under the report’s recommendations, some products would be phased out earlier, including textiles, food packaging, and children’s products that contain PFAS. The commission also recommends new disclosure and labeling requirements as long as the products are allowed.  

Hogan said because PFAS are so prevalent throughout consumer products, banning PFAS only in cases where they were intentionally added was seen as a “place we can start.” 

The report recommends that lawmakers continue to set aside money to test for and remediate PFAS contamination in the water supply, with particular attention given to lower income communities that do not have money to pay for projects on their own. Municipalities are encouraged to require PFAS testing any time a property with a well is sold or permitted, while setting up a loan program and developing ways to lower homeowners’ costs for remediation. 

The report also urges the Department of Environmental Protection to consider establishing limits for PFAS discharges in industrial wastewater and groundwater permits. 

One major concern in recent years has been the use of PFAS in firefighting gear and foam. The task recommends reviewing standards for gear, identifying alternatives, and phasing out the use of gear with PFAS once alternatives are available. It recommends buying foam that does not have the harmful chemicals while getting rid of stocks of the current foam, often referred to as AFFF (for aqueous film-forming foams), and minimizing environmental impacts in the emergency cases when more harmful foams must be used. Experts say the use of firefighting foams is one major source for how PFAS enters the environment.  

State fire marshal Peter Ostroskey, a task force member, said eliminating the chemicals that cause cancer in firefighting gear is paramount. “We know we’re exposing firefighters to carcinogens…by virtue of putting on personal protective equipment,” Ostroskey said. He said departments are also worried about the environmental impacts of the chemicals. But he said there needs to be a viable alternative to avoid a “whack a mole situation” where substitute gear causes other problems.  

Legally, the report recommends exploring whether claims can be made against PFAS manufacturers to seek remediation costs and damages to cover the cost of cleaning drinking water supplies.  The report says today, “The cost of PFAS detection and remediation has primarily fallen on those who have not contributed to PFAS contamination – individuals, communities, public water systems, and states – while manufacturers continue to profit from the production and use of PFAS.” 

Some municipalities have already sued PFAS manufacturers over groundwater contamination. Assistant Attorney General Andy Goldberg, a member of the PFAS task force, said the attorney general’s office is “continuing to explore appropriate litigation.” 

The report also recommends conducting a public education and awareness campaign around PFAS contamination and giving guidance to doctors on how to address exposure with patients.  

Cyr said the price tag for implementing the recommendations would be “very substantial,” since remediating contaminated water supplies is expensive. But Cyr said some money could become available from the federal government. 

Maine and California have both passed laws regulating PFAS as a class of consumer products and trying to phase out their use. Several states have banned PFAS for specific uses, like food packaging. A handful of states have established safe drinking water standards. “As is often the case when it comes to environmental and health regulations, Massachusetts is in the forefront,” Cyr said. Cyr said he hopes if enough states act, that will prompt additional federal regulation. 

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Hogan said she hopes to “build momentum on a national level so those businesses or companies that are manufacturing PFAS see this is no longer a viable way to do business and look for alternatives.” 

Hogan said she will be looking toward “multiple legislative opportunities” to advance the recommendations this legislative session.