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Scientists Affirm PFAS Should be Managed as a Class

By Rebecca Fuoco | February 4, 2021

Support for managing per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) as a class is burgeoning, and producers of these “forever chemicals” are scrambling to mount a defense.

Our Institute’s paper promoting this concept, published in June, has been the most-read article in Environmental Science & Technology Letters for the past six months. In it, our group of authors—16 scientists from universities, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the European Environment Agency, and NGOs—say the extreme persistence and known toxicity of PFAS that have been studied render traditional chemical-by-chemical management dangerously inadequate. The article lays out how businesses and government can apply a class-based approach to reduce harm from PFAS, including fluoropolymers, which are used in many industrial and consumer products.

The class-based approach to PFAS has gained traction among scientists, government, and business. In October, another group of esteemed scientists published a paper aligned with the concept, expounding upon the point that fluoropolymers should be included in (and managed as) the class of PFAS. In December, New York became the third state to ban all PFAS from food packaging. In January, fast-food giant McDonald’s committed to phasing out the whole class of PFAS from its packaging.

On the other hand, employees of Honeywell, a major manufacturer of PFAS refrigerant gases and other fluorinated products, submitted a comment to the journal opposing the class approach. However, their arguments either contradict the science or disregard public health.

Our authors’ response, published Tuesday, demonstrates that the science is on the side of the class-based approach. All PFAS are either extremely persistent in the environment or break down into extremely persistent PFAS. Because of their persistence, PFAS will continue to accumulate in the environment, increasing the likelihood of harm. Of the few PFAS that have been well studied, most have a long and alarming list of health effects, from cancer to immune disruption. Cleaning up contamination will be expensive and take decades or more, if it is even possible.

Companies that profit from widespread use of PFAS would prefer business and government manage these chemicals one-by-one—necessitating years of study for each of thousands of PFAS. But protecting public health and the environment, rather than the bottom line of chemical producers, demands avoiding all non-essential uses of the whole class of PFAS, as soon as possible. “Continuing to put the burden of this pollution onto people, communities, and the environment can no longer be justified.”