Regulatory decisions in the United States—including those regarding the appropriate uses for and exposure levels to chemicals and compounds—are influenced by a variety of internal and external pressures. These include the political ideology of elected leaders, the demand for action from citizens (often spurred by special interest groups), the dynamics of the regulatory agency itself, the values of our society, and, of course, the fact-based scientific evidence about the potential safety or hazards of the substances being regulated.
What is often lost in this regulatory Bermuda Triangle of politics, values, and science, is the concept of risk management, especially in the case of the regulatory rush to judgment over per-and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS), the exceptionally durable chemical compounds used in literally thousands of ways by millions of Americans every day.
The two original PFAS compounds—PFOA and PFOS—have been associated with potential health risks at high exposure levels and were voluntarily discontinued by US manufacturers more than a decade ago. However, they still persist in several specific locations, including military bases, wastewater treatment plants, and landfills. In response, modern versions of the compounds have been engineered to be less persistent and studies have shown a “sparse connection” between exposure to these chemicals and health risks.
Risk management identifies, evaluates, and prioritizes risks and determines if there is an economically efficient way to minimize, monitor, and control them in order to reduce the chances of loss or damage. A key component of risk management in the regulatory arena is a cost-benefit analysis to determine the social, economic, and public health values of the use of a particular chemical or compound versus the impact of regulations that would severely limit or ban its use.
Our shelves and medicine cabinets are full of items that contain warning labels about potential health hazards and side effects. All of these items have gone through rigorous regulatory evaluations by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), or the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and are still allowed to be manufactured, advertised, and sold. Why? Because after carefully assessing the risk, regulators understand that such risks can be effectively managed and that the benefits of their use far outweigh the costs.
As the EPA and its state counterparts address PFAS regulations, we urge them to incorporate a strong risk management component into their effort. This means being willing to take advice from a wide variety of independent experts, including scientists and economists, and completing a thorough cost-benefit analysis of the potential ramifications of their regulatory actions. We can’t allow the principles of sound risk management to get lost in the Bermuda Triangle of public policy development.