On July 15, Maine became the first governmental jurisdiction in the world to pass a law banning PFAS chemicals, a class of thousands of synthetic chemical compounds that resist biodegradability, earning the substances the nickname “forever chemicals.”
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS chemicals, are resistant to fire, water and grease. The substances are ubiquitous in fast-food packaging, non-stick cookware, fabrics and carpeting, cleaning products, paints and firefighting foams.
According to Science.org, Maine’s law will forbid the sale of products with PFAS chemicals. The ban will not be fully enforced until 2030. Additionally, regulators may bypass the ban on certain PFAS if they deem the compounds to be “currently unavoidable.”
PFAS chemicals have become controversial because they not only persist in consumer products, they can be detected in drinking water, in the environment, and in the tissues of living organisms, including humans.
In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s administrator, Michael S. Regan, issued a memorandum to senior leadership in the agency, calling for the creation of a new "EPA Council on PFAS" that is “charged with building on the agency's ongoing work to better understand and ultimately reduce the potential risks caused by these chemicals,” an EPA press release stated.
All PFAS have a similar chemical structure. Governments have historically regulated the chemicals individually, Science.org reported. However, environmental activists and some researchers would like to see the controversial chemicals regulated and restricted under one class.
If a specific PFAS compound would be deemed essential or unavoidable by a manufacturer, regulators should prove the chemical’s use is “essential for health, safety, or the functioning of society, and that there are no alternatives,” said Science.org.
The American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry trade group, along with other pro-synthetic chemical business interests have pushed back against an outright ban on PFAS.
“A one-size-fits-all approach to chemical regulation is neither scientifically accurate, nor appropriate,” said the American Chemistry Council in a recent statement on the Maine law, per Science.org.
Two specific PFAS chemicals were linked to health problems in the 1990s. According to CNN, a growing body of research suggests exposure to the compounds may cause liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression and cancer.
Many communities across the U.S. have detected PFAS in the local water supply. PFAS chemicals are not manufactured in Maine, yet state officials found dozens of wells contaminated with PFAS.
The EPA’s safe water limit for PFAS is 70 parts per trillion (ppt). Some wells in the state contained up to 30,000 ppt.