Bills to restrict “forever chemicals” in firefighting foam and food packaging are among the legislation that a network of state environmental health groups expects state lawmakers to take up this year, according to an analysis the network released Wednesday.
State lawmakers seek to prevent more per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), from entering the environment, food supply, and people’s bodies, said Gretchen Salter, strategic director at Safer States, a nonprofit network that focuses on chemical issues. They’re tired of finding PFAS “in the water, in sludge, everywhere,” she said.
Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, and California seem particularly likely to move forward with PFAS legislation that addresses one or multiple uses of the chemicals, Salter said.
At least 12 states have introduced or are expected to consider bans of, restrictions of, and/or mandatory take-back programs for a firefighting liquid called aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), Salter said.
This foam, which works well for jet fuel and other high-risk fires, traditionally has contained PFAS. But even the Air Force and Navy no longer permit it for training or other nonemergency situations, due to concerns about the chemicals contaminating drinking water across the country.
A central property PFAS have is to persist, meaning many don’t break down in the environment. Information about a few PFAS also shows they can may increase cholesterol and the risk of cancer, among other health problems.
State restrictions can eliminate AFFF from being used for highway and other fires turning off the “tap” for one source of these chemicals, Salter said. States can’t prevent AFFF from being used where federal regulations, such as those covering airports, require it, she said.
Food Packaging Traction
Restrictions on chemicals in food packaging is getting traction in state legislation because consumers who care about the environment, including chemicals, “almost feel betrayed,” Salter said.
People sought to substitute single use nature-derived, compostable plates, bowls, and other products for fossil-fuel based plastic products only to learn that many of the substitutes have been coated with “toxic chemicals that never break down,” Salter said.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of dozens of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, for paper, plastic wrap, and other materials that contact food. The chemicals make coated materials heat and grease resistant, which has resulted in their use in pizza boxes, salad bowls, carryout containers, and other food packaging.
The PFAS that FDA has approved are shorter compounds. As of 2016, FDA no longer allowed longer “forever chemicals” in food packaging, because the domestic manufacturers of those chemicals had stopped making them for that use, according to agency information.
Food containers, which are a small part of the broader category of food contact materials, pose particular concerns because the PFAS in them is deposited in landfills from which they may leach out or composted and then spread on gardens, crops, and other agricultural lands, Salter said. That results in more PFAS-containing runoff and people and animals getting recontaminated by PFAS taken up by plants, she said.
‘Narrow’ Product Scope
The effort to ban or restrict PFAS has gained steam after San Francisco passed a 2018 ordinance restricting the chemicals in some foodware effective Jan. 1, 2020. Maine banned the intentional addition of PFAS in food packaging last year.
State laws combined with certain take-out chains interest in marketing themselves based on reducing their environmental impact may change the chemicals used in compostable foodware consumers use, said Rhodes Yepsen, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute, Inc., which certifies materials for compostability. It no longer will certify products with fluorinated chemicals under a standard that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
But the range of products that fit into the types the institute certifies is very narrow, Yepsen said.
“It’s easy to focus on a small part of the problem” but PFAS need to be addressed through broader polices, he said.