The Threat of “Forever Chemicals”

How PFAS put Marylanders' health at risk, and what we can do about it

 Sometimes known by the moniker “forever chemicals” because they are nearly indestructible in the environment, PFAS build up in the bodies of humans over time and persist in the environment. 

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Romaniana Lee |

Maryland PIRG Foundation

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Executive summary

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, more commonly known as PFAS, are found in products from coatings for non-stick pans, paper products and textiles, to firefighting foam and electronics. Their oil- and water-repelling capabilities, their stability even at high temperatures, and their friction-reduction qualities have led to PFAS becoming a common ingredient in product manufacturing – and a ubiquitous presence in our homes and our communities.

However, PFAS are dangerous for public health. Sometimes known by the moniker “forever chemicals” because they are nearly indestructible in the environment, PFAS build up in the bodies of humans over time and persist in the environment. Today, PFAS are so widespread that nearly every American has these chemicals in their blood. PFAS can cause kidney cancer, thyroid disruption, reduced responses to vaccination and other health problems.

Nonetheless, PFAS production continues, adding to the pollution that threatens our health and environment today and for decades to come.

To protect public health, Maryland must take strong action to stop the flow of PFAS into our environment and our bodies, clean up existing PFAS contamination, and hold manufacturers and polluters responsible for cleaning up the pollution and public health damage they have caused.

PFAS are harmful to public health. Even low levels of exposure to PFAS are linked to a range of health damages, including:

  • Harm to the kidneys, leading to chronic kidney disease or kidney cancer,
  • Reduced antibody responses to vaccinations in both children and adults, and
  • Increased risk of gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, low birth weight and childhood obesity.

Despite industry claims to the contrary, newer types of PFAS are no safer for human health and the environment than older PFAS, such as PFOA and PFOS.

  • New PFAS travel more easily through water, resulting in widespread exposure, and thus may pose more risks to human and environmental health.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found that two newer PFAS chemicals create many of the same health impacts as older PFAS. EPA determined the toxicity of the PFAS known as GenX is in the same range as PFOA, the legacy PFAS it replaced.
  • Hundreds of public health experts around the globe have expressed concern about the health impacts of continuing to produce and use all varieties of PFAS.

Many drinking water sources in Maryland are contaminated with PFAS. In late 2019, the Maryland Department of the Environment tested for contamination from legacy PFAS at water treatment plants that provide drinking water to 70% of Maryland’s population.

  • Approximately 75% of the samples had quantifiable levels of PFOA and PFOS.
  • The two highest readings were from Westminster and Hampstead, both in Carroll County.
  • Testing by the U.S. Department of Defense has found PFAS in drinking water at or near a dozen military facilities in Maryland.

PFAS also contaminate groundwater and seafood in Maryland. PFAS contamination at military sites in Maryland often is traceable to the use of firefighting foam. PFAS from firefighting foam have leached into shallow groundwater, potentially flowing from there into nearby rivers and streams.

  • PFAS contamination has been found in groundwater at eight military facilities in six counties in Maryland.
  • Testing found nine different types of PFAS in striped bass, crabs and oysters from the Potomac River and St. Inigoes Creek in southern Maryland. The Maryland Department of the Environment has detected PFAS in three species of fish from Piscataway Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River in Prince George’s County, and has warned people to limit their intake of particular species caught in the creek.

To limit the spread of PFAS in the environment and reduce the risk of health impacts, policymakers should take a comprehensive approach to addressing the threat from PFAS.

The first step is to stop the problem from becoming worse.

  • PFAS should be regulated as a class. Controlling the use of a single type of PFAS at a time has historically led to the regrettable substitution of replacement chemicals that are less well understood, not necessarily safer.
  • Banning all PFAS will reduce exposure and harm. Eliminating the use of PFAS is crucial to protecting the environment and public health. The manufacturing and use of these chemicals have created widespread contamination that is extremely difficult to clean up and will create health risks for years.

Maryland policymakers should adopt measures to protect water quality, as several other states already have. PFAS spread readily through water, and this contamination is currently one of the most common ways that people are exposed to PFAS.

  • Maryland policymakers should establish a limit strong enough to protect public health on the amount of PFAS that are permitted in drinking water. The federal government has no enforceable limit on the amount of PFAS that can be safely present in drinking water or the environment, but a number of states have established limits on PFAS in drinking water.
  • The state should require and potentially help fund regular monitoring for PFAS in public drinking water and groundwater. Identifying PFAS contamination quickly can help jump-start remediation efforts, helping to prevent PFAS from spreading and reducing the long-term health effects associated with sustained contact with PFAS.
  • The state should support efforts to decontaminate drinking water supplies so that they comply with any PFAS-in-drinking-water limit that is adopted by the state.

Existing PFAS contamination should be cleaned up before it spreads into more drinking water supplies, groundwater, or rivers and streams.

  • Federal officials should mandate and fund cleanup of military facilities where water has been polluted with PFAS.
  • The U.S. EPA should designate PFAS as hazardous substances, which would facilitate better management of the entire class of chemicals. It would also apply strict storage, transfer and disposal requirements to the chemicals under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. In addition, a designation under the federal Superfund law could make it easier for EPA to mandate cleanups.
  • Regulators should ensure that PFAS removed from water or soil during remediation efforts do not create new pollution after disposal. The best solution would be to store PFAS and PFAS-containing materials until better technology is available to destroy them.
  • State and federal leaders should hold the companies and U.S. government agencies that are responsible for PFAS contamination accountable for cleaning up their pollution.

Emily Scarr

State Director, Maryland PIRG Foundation

Emily directs strategy, organizational development, research, communications and legislative advocacy for Maryland PIRG. Recently, Emily helped win small donor public financing in Montgomery and Howard counties, and the Maryland Keep Antibiotics Effective Act to protect public health by restricting the use of antibiotics on Maryland farms. Emily also serves on the Executive Committees of the Maryland Fair Elections Coalition and the Maryland Campaign to Keep Antibiotics Working, and the Steering Committees for the Maryland Pesticide Action Network and Marylanders for Open Government. Emily lives in Baltimore with her husband and dog.

Elizabeth Ridlington

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Elizabeth Ridlington is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. She focuses primarily on global warming, toxics, health care and clean vehicles, and has written dozens of reports on these and other subjects. Elizabeth graduated with honors from Harvard with a degree in government. She joined Frontier Group in 2002. She lives in Northern California with her son.