The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

States take on PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ with bans and lawsuits

They don’t naturally break down and are so widespread that they are found in the blood of 97 percent of Americans

Adam Nordell, co-owner of Songbird Farm in Unity, Maine, inside a greenhouse with overwintered spinach that was unsellable in March because of PFAS contamination. (Brianna Soukup for The Washington Post)

“Forever chemicals” are everywhere. The thousands of chemicals in the group known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are found in cookware, packaging, cosmetics, clothing, carpet, electronics, firefighting foam and many other products.

The chemicals don’t naturally break down and are so widespread that they’re found in the blood of 97 percent of Americans. Some PFAS compounds may decrease fertility, cause metabolic disorders, damage the immune system and increase the risk of cancer.

As they wait for regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, some states have banned the use of PFAS in certain consumer products. Others have issued stronger water quality standards or empowered state agencies to speed up regulations. Many are pursuing cleanup and remediation efforts, with states suing polluters for compensation ranging from tens of millions to nearly a billion dollars.

Safer States, an alliance of environmental health groups focused on toxic chemicals, has tracked 203 recent bills in 31 states related to PFAS issues.

“I have heard from legislators that testing has been a driving force for them,” said Mara Herman, environmental health manager with the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, a forum for state lawmakers. “It’s being found in so many places, it’s not really an urban issue or a rural issue.”

But advocates want federal action to hold multinational companies accountable for past contamination, clean infected waterways and impose sweeping bans on PFAS in new products.

“State by state is just absolutely ridiculous,” said Laurene Allen, co-founder of Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water, a New Hampshire group that has pushed the state to act on PFAS. “The progress you have shouldn’t be determined by your Zip code.”

The EPA has proposed a rule to regulate two common PFAS chemicals under the Superfund law.

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Industry advocates, meanwhile, are lobbying on the federal level and in statehouses, arguing that attempts to regulate PFAS broadly could end up banning harmless chemicals that are crucial for important products and industries.

PFAS compounds were long seen as a chemistry “miracle” due to properties that made them nonstick, stain-repellent, waterproof or fire-resistant.

“The most problematic pieces of legislation include inappropriate and overly broad definitions of PFAS that pull in many potentially unintended substances and products,” the American Chemistry Council, a trade association, said in a statement sent by Tom Flanagin, senior director of product communications.

Flanagin’s email cited a category of fluoropolymers used in renewable energy, health care, electronics and other industries as critical to many products while carrying a low safety risk.

PFAS bans

Lawmakers in several states point to Maine’s 2021 passage of a law banning PFAS in all new products as a landmark moment. The measure, which will take effect in 2030, bans any intentionally added PFAS, but allows for exceptions in products that are essential for health, safety or the functioning of society and don’t yet have a PFAS-free alternative.

Many other states have enacted laws targeting PFAS in food packaging, cosmetics, firefighting foam or textiles. Colorado, for example, passed a law this year covering many products, while also ending its use in oil and gas production.

Colorado state Rep. Mary Bradfield, a Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said other lawmakers wanted to pursue an economywide ban as broad as Maine’s, but she said she thought the targeted approach — which includes carpets and rugs, food packaging and children’s products — was more achievable.

In Hawaii, legislators passed a ban on PFAS in food packaging and firefighting foam this year. And California passed laws this year to ban PFAS in cosmetics and textiles, while requiring companies to report data on other products containing PFAS.

In some states, agency officials have led the response to PFAS contamination. In Michigan, for example, regulators crafted rules over the past several years for levels of some PFAS compounds in drinking water, groundwater and surface water. The state also brought together seven state agencies to form the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, known as MPART, which serves as a coordinating group for testing, cleanup and public education efforts. The state has conducted extensive testing to identify contaminated sites.

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“If we've got a source [of contamination], we're going to find it in groundwater, so that's the easiest way to define and start those compliance actions,” said Abigail Hendershott, MPART’s executive director.

Now that it has a better handle on testing and regulating water, the state may turn its attention to consumer products, she said.

Cleaning up

Banning products and setting regulations may help prevent future contamination. But states still have much work ahead to address the forever chemicals found in their water, soil and residents.

This year, Florida legislators passed a bill requiring the state Department of Environmental Protection to establish rules by 2025 for target cleanup levels of PFAS if the EPA has not set a national standard by then.

“There will be state, federal and local funding that will need to come into play to address the problem,” said state Rep. Toby Overdorf, a Republican who co-sponsored the bill. “We are going to be educating municipalities and letting them know they need to develop a plan to get a hold of this so they can deliver clean drinking water.”

New Hampshire set aside $25 million this year to bolster a loan fund for PFAS remediation of public water systems and wastewater facilities. And lawmakers in Vermont gave residents the right to sue chemical companies for medical monitoring costs if they’ve been exposed to PFAS.

Meanwhile, 15 state attorneys general separately have sued companies alleged to be responsible for PFAS contamination, seeking damages for the harm caused by the pollution. Minnesota settled with 3M, which produced nonstick chemicals that polluted groundwater in the Twin Cities area, for $850 million in 2018. Delaware also reached a settlement, but the other lawsuits are still ongoing.

But some industry leaders think it’s unfair to hold PFAS manufacturers accountable for every instance of contamination.

“It’s not the person who manufactured it who caused the spill or leak, it’s the person on whose property the leak occurred,” said Scott Manley, executive vice president of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a pro-business lobbying association.

The group opposes a lawsuit brought by Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul, both Democrats, seeking nearly $1 billion from 18 companies state leaders say failed to protect the public.

Manley noted that his group has supported efforts to create a grant funding program to help local governments deal with PFAS hot spots.

But in some states, leaders would rather see polluters than taxpayers pay for cleanup.

“These chemicals are very difficult to clean up, and it's very expensive,” said Minnesota state Rep. Ami Wazlawik, a Democrat who sponsored a bill that banned PFAS in food packaging. “The taxpayers of Minnesota are not responsible for putting these chemicals there.”

This article is from Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.