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Environment & Energy Report

INSIGHT: With PFAS One-Size-Fits-All Isn’t the Answer

May 20, 2019, 10:00 AM

The American Chemistry Council’s Jessica Bowman explains why she believes chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds should not be regulated as a group. This is part of a point-counterpoint series paired with one from the Environmental Working Group’s David Andrews, who argues for regulating the chemicals as a class.

The modern world is a marvel of innovation, ideas, and inventions that have transformed our daily lives and the course of history. When Thomas Edison said, “there’s a way to do it better—find it,” the world took note. Today, whether we are talking about technology, transportation, medicine, or science, our lives are better because of innovation. This is certainly true when it comes to chemistry, an essential building block for a healthier, safer, more sustainable, and more productive world.

Unfortunately, innovation in chemistry and the critical role it plays in our way of life are too often overshadowed by hyperbole in today’s public discourse, most notably when it comes to the safety and use of chemicals. While scary sound bites might make for good headlines, they don’t always make for good policy. And the impression these quips can leave with the public and policymakers is often misleading.

Take for instance the latest push to ban or regulate an entire family of chemicals, including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

Durability

Fluorinated chemicals, or PFAS, are a diverse group of chemistries characterized by the strong bond between fluorine and carbon. Because of this strong bond, these chemicals provide resilience and durability. These properties are critical to the performance of many important products that industry and consumers rely on every day. If you are reading this on a tablet, have a loved one in a hospital, used your car to get your kids to school, or are getting ready to get on an airplane, chances are you are relying on these chemistries.

Today’s PFAS are also known as FluoroTechnology. From transportation to healthcare, electronics to textiles and many others, modern life is enabled by these fluorinated chemistries. For example, fluorinated chemistries in hospital equipment create a barrier that provides life-saving protection against infections and transmission of diseases in hospitals. Without PFAS, modern travel would not be possible.

Fuel components and electronics used by aerospace and automotive systems use fluorinated chemical properties such as durability, heat, vapor-barrier and chemical resistance. PFAS can help protect food quality and integrity, extend shelf life, and enable hygienic transportation and storage. Meanwhile, they also improve the insulation, weatherability, transparency and water resistance for many electronic products, such as cell phones and tablets, and enable longer-lasting renewable energy technologies such as solar panels.

Innovation, like the kind Thomas Edison encouraged, is a hallmark of PFAS, which have transformed over the years to meet market demand and changing product specifications. Today’s fluorinated chemistries have significantly enhanced environmental and human health profiles. They underwent strict regulatory review before they went to market, which included a requirement to provide significant data and testing related to various health and environmental factors. In addition, these substances are continuously reviewed and allowed for use by regulators around the globe.

Campaigns Target PFAS

While the value and benefit of fluorinated chemistries is clear, there is a campaign underway to ban, restrict, and regulate entire classes of chemicals, regardless of their differences. PFAS is one of the most active examples of a push for a one-size-fits-all approach to restrictions and regulations. Critics try to dispute the safety of all PFAS chemicals, discourage their use, and discredit those who seek to point out the facts about the chemistry’s health and safety profiles. This effort has led to widespread confusion and concern about PFAS chemicals.

While the use of PFAS in products is very common, the current public discussion focuses on the mere presence of these substances—even at extremely low levels—rather than their safety. The same “presence” arguments are also used against chemicals in general.

General misunderstanding and misconceptions about chemistry are common and may help add momentum to the critics’ blanket approach.

While for many Americans high school chemistry classes may have been intimidating, chemistry is a basic fact of life. Each and every day, we are naturally exposed to a broad range of chemicals through both the environment and our normal human functions.

To help paint a better picture of this concept, just take a look at some fruits and vegetables that are commonly found in households like apples, pears, potatoes, and zucchini. All of these items contain natural chemicals that could be toxic to humans at certain levels. While the names might sound complicated (amygdalin or solanine, for instance), the amount of chemicals contained within the food is so low, the dose is not harmful to the people who enjoy them and, as we know, fruit also provides important health and nutritional benefits. So rather than pointing to the mere presence of a chemical, it is critical to consider actual exposure when assessing its safety.

A “chemical exposure” can be defined as the measurement of both the amount of, and the frequency with which, a substance comes into contact with a person or the environment.

The fact is that any chemical—even water and oxygen—can be toxic if too much is ingested or absorbed into the body. The risk presented by a specific substance depends on a variety of factors, including how much of the substance a person is exposed to, how they are exposed, and for how long. Pointing out such distinctions is essential when it comes to the discussion about regulating chemicals, as safety is a key factor in such decisions.

No Reason to Group

The differences in PFAS offer a clear example of why it doesn’t make sense to paint chemicals with a broad regulatory stroke. Today’s PFAS products are the product of innovation and have differing characteristics, formulations, intended uses, and environmental and health profiles. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has the responsibility for regulating the safety of chemicals, as well as regulators around the globe, recognize these considerable differences in the family of chemistries.

The science on the health and safety of newer PFAS is extensive. A large body of data has been developed by universities, government agencies, independent laboratories, and industry scientists and provided to regulators globally as part of their ongoing chemical review processes. The science supports the conclusion that today’s PFAS products do not present a significant risk to human health or the environment.

Newly-released, comprehensive data add to the growing body of evidence demonstrating the safety of these products. Recently, three new sets of independent studies published in the peer-reviewed journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology support the conclusion that perfluorohexanoic acid (PFHxA), a key short-PFAS, is not a significant human health concern. This research offers the latest look at exposure, health effects, and hormone (endocrine) activity related to this PFAS. The studies find that PFHxA is not carcinogenic, is not a selective reproductive or developmental toxicant, and does not disrupt hormone (endocrine) activity.

Critics point to perceived gaps in oversight as the impetus for embracing sweeping bans or other regulatory restrictions. The truth is chemicals are one of the most regulated industries around the world. Chemical regulatory programs in the U.S. and elsewhere have rigorous requirements including significant data and testing related to various health and environmental factors before a new chemical can enter the marketplace.

The same is true of today’s PFAS, which were subject to rigorous scientific research requirements that included testing related to cancer, reproductive/developmental factors, systematic toxicity, bioretention, ecological endpoints, environmental fate and transport, and other factors before being they could be brought to market.

Adequately Regulated

In addition to chemical product regulation, there also are numerous laws that govern how chemicals are manufactured, used, transported, and managed. These include specific regulations for limiting emissions and helping ensure minimal exposures. In the U.S., more than a dozen federal laws and multiple federal agencies govern the safe manufacture and use of chemicals.

Grouping of PFAS and other chemicals by class would disregard this layered regulatory structure. By design, grouping these different substances together for the purposes of blanket, one-size-fits-all regulatory policies would not take into account how the chemical is used, in what amount, or whether and how long exposure occurs (if at all). This approach defies what scientists and other experts continue to determine: while chemicals can be somewhat similar, their properties can differ greatly in ways that could affect (or not) human health or the environment. An example is carbon in the crystalline form, including diamonds and graphite, which has different properties than those found in charcoal, coke, and carbon black. Again, exposure is also a key factor in differentiating similar substances. For instance, when talking about exposure to the same molecule of H2O, it might be safe for people in the liquid phase, but not as steam or ice.

Nomenclature can complicate the debate as well. The names of chemicals can cause confusion in the rush to regulate or restrict based on class. Even if a chemical has a similar-sounding name, it doesn’t mean it is the same. For instance, a sugar maple is not the same as maple sugar, a maple table or even maple syrup. While the names of a number of PFAS may be similar, the differences in their use, structure, and health and environmental profiles distinguish them.

Finally, history is on the side of data that demonstrates differences among a family of chemistry. One-size-fits-all regulation of PFAS or other chemicals as a class is an approach that has been rejected repeatedly by U.S. agencies and other international regulatory bodies over the years. Consequences can range from deterring innovation to discouraging alternative product design. It can also go as far as completely eliminating a chemistry necessary to an essential product or enabling technology.

While blanket or one-size-fits-all approaches to regulation and restriction are not scientifically appropriate, there is precedence for category approaches—where the category is appropriately described based on sound scientific evidence—as a useful way to screen chemicals for further review. Such an approach can also be deployed to consider testing or data collection requirements or for regulatory purposes.

Addressing information needs for a chemical category can be accomplished by applying one or more scientific procedures. The more sound data that is available and considered, the higher quality the result.

Individual Chemicals

The category approach has been effective in supplementing information needs in the past. Generally speaking, however, regulation that constitutes restriction should be grounded in a chemical-specific determination based on particular uses, exposures, and risk presented by specific individual chemicals. The EPA, for example, has developed defined categories of chemistries in its New Chemicals program “for which sufficient assessment experience has been accumulated so that hazard concerns and testing recommendations vary little from chemical to chemical within the category.” But for restrictions placed on a specific chemical, EPA does not just look at the similarity of chemicals; it also considers whether there is exposure from a new chemical being reviewed such that there is an unreasonable risk.

When it comes to PFAS, the chemical industry has signaled support for examining possible alternatives to a one-size-fits-all class scheme, including a category approach. More specifically, industry has encouraged EPA to work to identify possible ways the agency could consider the broad range of chemical and toxicological properties of substances in the PFAS family in order to assist in prioritizing those substances, or groups of substances, which may require greater scrutiny. This more deliberate approach acknowledges the differences within the chemical family, but offers a pathway for prioritizing research and data.

World history has been marked by great genius and incredible progress for humankind. It has also been punctuated by well-meaning ideas that sound great in theory, but don’t make good sense in application. The evidence shows a one-size-fits-all approach to chemicals regulations does not make scientific or practical sense. To reiterate what Thomas Edison said, “there’s a way to do it better—find it.” The chemical industry stands ready to work with all parties to meet this complex challenge.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Jessica Bowman is a senior director with the American Chemistry Council and is the executive director of the FluoroCouncil, a global organization comprised of the world’s leading FluoroTechnology companies.

To read arguments contending PFAS should be regulated as a class, please see the Insights article by the Environmental Working Group.

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