Lawmakers urge action on ‘forever chemicals’

  • COMERFORD

  • McGOVERN

Staff Writer
Published: 7/15/2021 5:18:00 PM

They’re in industrial materials, food packaging, takeout containers, paints, carpets, cosmetics and more. PFAS, synthetic substances known as “forever chemicals,” end up in the blood of consumers and are known to cause a variety of health issues.

On Wednesday afternoon, state Sen. Jo Comerford and U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern hosted a virtual panel, titled “Turn Off the Tap: It’s Time to Ban PFAS in Massachusetts,” to detail the impacts of the chemicals and call for mitigation of their use.

“This is a crisis,” McGovern said of the widespread use of PFAS, “and we need to take action with a sense of urgency.

“We ought to be demanding that right-to-know laws are enacted so that manufacturers have to tell people whether PFAS is in the products they are selling,” he added. “Cities and towns can’t handle this alone.”

Manufacturers have used PFAS — per- and polyfluoralkyls — since the 1940s to make products stick-proof, waterproof and stain-proof. But the chemicals are linked to various forms of cancer, reproductive problems, immunotoxicity, colitis and numerous other adverse health effects. According to the national activist and research organization Environmental Working Group, over 98 percent of Americans have PFAS in their blood.

Over 9,000 PFAS chemicals exist, though just six are regulated in Massachusetts.

Comerford and McGovern were joined Wednesday by David Reckhow, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; Maureo Fernández y Mora, associate director of Clean Water Action Massachusetts; Deirdre Cummings, legislative director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG); and Himaja Nagireddy, a Presidential Public Service Fellow at Harvard University.

The full extent of PFAS in Western Massachusetts is unknown, as not all water sources are tested for PFAS, Reckhow said. But research so far suggests that 17 percent of public water supplies in the western part of the state have detectable levels of PFAS, with 5 percent containing levels above state regulatory standards. Locally, the chemicals have been found in two wells in Shutesbury and potable water in Swift River School in New Salem.

Across the state, about 37 percent of private wells have detectable levels of the chemicals, research suggests, with 7 percent at levels above state regulations. Residents of select communities can request that the state Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) test their private wells for PFAS.

As the moniker “forever chemicals” suggests, PFAS are, at best, hard to get rid of once they’re in the air, soil or water.

The chemicals will remain present “for many, many years, and maybe even forever,” Reckhow said. But even if PFAS do reduce over a long period of time, “we’re releasing them faster than they could ever go away in the environment,” he added.

Some materials and methods, such as activated carbon, ion exchange and reverse osmosis can remove the chemicals from water, Reckhow said, but the isolated PFAS must be disposed of off-site. Researchers hope to develop a method for on-site destruction, which may be possible but needs more development.

“They’ve known PFAS is dangerous for over 50 years,” Fernández y Mora said, “and their only response has been to evade responsibility.” Manufacturers have also been creating new PFAS chemicals.

Average residents should not have to foot the cost of “industry recklessness,” Fernández y Mora added.

Comerford and McGovern have introduced acts in the state Legislature and in Congress that are intended to restrict PFAS usage. Comerford’s bill would ban Massachusetts sales of products commonly made with PFAS if they contain the chemicals, while McGovern’s “Protecting Firefighters from PFAS Act” would direct the National Institute of Standards and Technology to create stronger regulations against PFAS in firefighters’ gear.

Anyone can push back against PFAS through means such as writing to their representatives expressing concerns with the chemicals or boycotting manufacturers that use PFAS in their products, the panelists said.

“This is our charge, this is our work ahead,” said Comerford, D-Northampton, “and we feel the urgency.”

A recording of the panel is available at bit.ly/3eqk37N.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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