Editorials, Opinion

Give gov’t agencies the power to protect us

In 1999, Rob Bilott,  an environmental lawyer who had built his career defending large corporations took on the case of a Parkersburg farmer, Wilbur Tennant, whose cattle were dying.  

Tennant believed chemicals from a DuPont landfill were contaminating a stream that ran past both the landfill and Tennant’s farm. The decades-long saga became the basis for the 2019 film Dark Waters.

Over the course of the case, Bilott found a letter between DuPont and the Environmental Protection Agency that mentioned PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) that the company used in the creation of Teflon. And in the thousands of documents DuPont was forced to hand over, Bilott discovered that DuPont had known since at least 1961 that the substance was dangerous.

Since then, we’ve learned more about the class of chemicals referred to as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). “Forever chemicals” that take hundreds of years to degrade, they are found in the blood of most people on the planet.  PFAS can leach into water, soil, air and even our food. They were used in hundreds of products from non-stick coatings, to stain-resistant and waterproof materials, to food containers and wrappers.

In 2011, scientists began releasing studies linking PFOA and PFAS to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis. The CDC currently links PFAS exposure to decreased fertility; developmental effects or delays in children; reduced ability to fight infections, including reduced vaccine response; interference with hormones; and increased cholesterol levels and/or risk of obesity.

So companies stopped using PFAS, right?

Wrong. Consumer Reports released its findings last week that found PFAS in food packaging from all of the 24 retailers it studied, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Trader Joe’s and Nathan’s Famous (which had two products with PFAS greater than 100 parts per million, the standard set by California for the maximum amount of PFAS in a product). Products included paper wrappers and bags, single-use paper plates, molded salad bowls and fiber trays.

Just before Consumer Reports released its findings, The Guardian wrote about an independent lab finding the carcinogen benzene in a variety of personal care products, such as sunscreen, lotion, shampoo, sanitizers and deodorant — particularly aerosols. Benzene is a compound often found in petroleum products, such as gasoline, and smoke (natural and cigarette). Benzene is linked to leukemia, anemia and bone marrow diseases. Considered a highly toxic chemical, the FDA regulates it to 2 ppm in drugs; OSHA to 1 ppm in workplaces; and the EPA to 5 ppb in water.

As ubiquitous as PFAS and benzene have become, some contamination occurs in other parts of production or comes from imported materials. However, companies sometimes add or use these chemicals knowingly.

The FDA started requesting recalls for benzene-contaminated cosmetics as early as September 2021 and some companies have complied. However, recalls are largely voluntary — the FDA lacks an enforcement mechanism to require companies take most hazardous products off the shelf; the only exceptions are vaccines, blood products and devices that may cause serious injury or death, according to Drug Watch. The FDA can only make recommendations and try to publicize the information.

As for PFAS, in 2020 and 2021, the EPA finally moved to study, regulate and limit these forever chemicals. The Toxic Substances Control Act of 2020 prohibits companies “from manufacturing, processing or importing products containing certain long-chain PFAS.” However, corporations will only face a maximum $1 million fine per violation — if they get caught.

A few million in fines is nothing to a company when it can make billions for breaking the rules. We know from experience companies cannot be trusted to regulate themselves. (Look at DuPont burying decades of internal research in order to keep selling Teflon.) Public health and safety should always be the top priority, but companies too often prioritize profits instead — which is why regulatory agencies need the authority and the resources to enforce rules that protect the general public and to punish bad actors who knowingly violate the law.