It didn’t take long for a congressional hearing on the best ways for lawmakers to tackle PFAS contamination to turn into a partisan food fight. But between the attacks on and defenses of PFAS compounds, made by members of the House subcommittee and experts who delivered testimony, there remained a glimmer of hope that a science-based approach to regulatory oversight and cleanup initiatives could prevail.
Legislators and witnesses agreed that some PFAS compounds (particularly PFOA and PFOS) may present a health hazard at high exposure levels. Since these particular compounds are essential components of firefighting foam, high concentrations are found in water supplies that surround military bases where the foam is used in training exercises.
Legislators noted the PFAS Action Act (pending action in the Senate) would require military and civilian airports to find alternatives to foams containing PFAS. The only potential problem: there is no alternative compound as effective as these foams in extinguishing fires quickly. This leaves policymakers with a classic “risk vs. reward” question of whether to keep allowing the foams to be used in firefighting, or to expose firefighters to immediate danger by banning it.
One potential science-based solution that perked up the ears of legislators on both sides of the aisle was a new technology called the PFAS Annihilator, which destroys PFAS and contaminated water to non-detectable levels in seconds, according to a director of research and development from Battelle, the firm developing the product. Should the Annihilator prove effective — along with other mitigation technologies being developed by scientists across the country and around the world — it would allow the continued use of these incredibly durable materials by reducing or eliminating their potential exposure hazards.
Another area of seemingly universal agreement during the hearing was that our understanding of the potential hazards of PFAS exposure is woefully inadequate for policymakers to issue the best possible decisions on regulation of the compounds. As Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) said, “It’s concerning how little we know about these harmful chemicals and even further, how limited our understanding is about what we still need to learn.”
We at the Center couldn’t agree more. The results of our independently commissioned analyses of the most frequently cited studies on PFAS will be released soon, and will be shared with state and federal legislators and regulators to help them better understand what isn’t yet known and what still needs to be learned about PFAS. The scientific reviews, conducted by scientists in the U.S. and Europe, will also provide recommendations for future research that could help to develop definitive data on the potential public health hazards of PFAS compounds at specific exposure levels.
Until we have validated scientific evidence to fill in these PFAS knowledge gaps, Rep. Stephanie Bice (R-OK) concluded, “Using certain PFAS in a controlled and responsible manner is safe and effective. Understanding the different properties of each of these chemicals will allow us to continue the important uses and benefits of PFAS technologies. Removing harmful PFAS from production and cleaning up legacy contaminations to protect human health is a bipartisan issue.”