States Seek to Ban Cosmetics And Toiletries with Forever Chemicals. But EPA Still Eyes Drinking Water

by | Apr 17, 2023

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Some state legislative bodies want to ban cosmetics and toiletries with forever chemicals that do not readily break down and remain in the body — known as PFAs. 

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, cookware, pizza boxes, and stain repellants have PFAs. Exposure to them could lead to low birth weights, weakened immune systems, and reduced fertility — on top of causing cancer. “Forever chemicals” have now been detected in nearly 2,800 communities, including 2,411 drinking water systems and 328 military installations, according to the Environmental Working Group. It says that more than 200 million Americans have been exposed to PFAs and that roughly 30,000 companies could be discharging those chemicals into the air and water. 

Vermont has a bill to disallow manufacturers and suppliers to sell cosmetics and menstrual products with PFAs. It also includes shampoos, deodorants, and sunscreens. California, Colorado, and Maryland passed similar laws to take effect in 2025. Georgia, Illinois, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington State are debating the measure. 

The University of Notre Dame discovered in 2021 that more than half of the cosmetics sold in this country and Canada had high levels of PFAs. Researchers tested 230 products and found between 47% and 56% of eye, lip, and mascara had those forever chemicals. “This stuff is toxic at incredibly low levels, and it’s persistent,” says Graham Peaslee, who worked on the study, per PBS

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed limiting PFAs in drinking water, saying it will save lives and prevent certain cancers. While PFAs are getting phased out, they still exist. EPA wants to limit those chemicals to the lowest detectable levels: 4 parts per trillion. It’s especially keen on protecting drinking water. 

“EPA’s proposal to establish a national standard for PFAS in drinking water is informed by the best available science, and would help provide states with the guidance they need to make decisions that best protect their communities,” says Michael Regan, EPA Administrator. “This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants.”

EPA’s proposal is out for comment until mid-June. After review, it will issue a final order by year’s end. 

Clearing Up ‘Dark Waters’

The United States has never developed enforceable standards relating to PFAs. The states have thus taken the lead. While safeguarding consumer products is imperative, there is even more urgency when protecting drinking water, groundwater, surface water, and soil — things we come into contact with daily.  

The movie “Dark Waters” profiled the issue: the protagonist Rob Bilott sues DuPont and reveals that its chemical — a subset of ‘PFAs’ — is contaminating drinking water supplies for residents of the Ohio Valley. While the stress of the lawsuit nearly kills him, the side effects that his clients displayed are just as serious: thyroid disease, testicular cancer, and kidney cancer. The ultimate liability was $671 million, split between DuPont and Chemours that broke from DuPont in 2015.

DuPont — now DowDuPont — has been phasing out C-8 from the market since 2014 after an independent scientific panel had determined that it caused several cancers. But questions had long persisted that the chemical was dangerous to human health, which begs the question as to why it had continued to dump it in the Ohio River.

The Guardian and Consumer Reports examined 140,000 public water systems nationwide for “forever chemicals.” The news outlets found that access to clean drinking water supplies disproportionately affects low-income areas and rural regions. The study shows that violations are highest in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and New Mexico.

Now Bilott is leading a class-action lawsuit. He is looking at the companies that produced PFAs and their impact on people’s health — the amount of the forever chemicals that remain in their blood. If the EPA’s proposal drags on, America’s trial lawyers will stay on the case. 

“The dangerous pollutants that water systems have difficulty filtering out vary across the country, from the nitrate from farm runoff in states where agriculture is prominent, including California, to radioactive mining substances in states such as West Virginia,” writes Consumer Reports.

Chemical makers like DowDuPont and Chemours create products that have benefited society. But public policy must balance invention and inequality, all to mitigate the potential harm to the environment and human health.

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