President Joe Biden has promised to make decisions based on science and data.
The Environmental Protection Agency has the perfect opportunity to make good on that promise. It recently launched an initiative to research any risks associated with PFAS chemicals in the nation’s drinking water.
PFAS is short for “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” and they’re found in all kinds of industrial and consumer goods used every day.
But while there is ample evidence of PFAS’s essential functions, there is precious little data on the effects of PFAS in our environment. Even the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry points out that exposure to PFAS “from today’s consumer products is usually low.”
Despite this absence of objective information, a handful of state legislatures have proposed or enacted outright bans on using these chemicals, which are crucial for creating everyday products like nonstick cooking pans, waterproof clothing and stain-proof rugs. And recently, federal lawmakers introduced a bill that would declare them hazardous substances, shoving aside scientific review.
Yet pushing these bans now will jeopardize the availability of goods that only exist due to the unique properties of PFAS. Without additional scientific evidence, they would be reckless and unwise.
PFAS have been around since the 1940s. They include some 5,000 man-made compounds, characterized by a one-of-a-kind structure that allows them to resist water, heat and oil. PFAS are used to save our cellphones from most water damage, and to make seals for vehicles that prevent harmful emissions from leaking into the air we breathe.
PFAS also have crucial health and safety uses for our frontline public safety workers. They are present in fire suppression applications. Many implantable medical devices are made stronger by PFAS, minimizing the chance that a device will have to be replaced through additional surgeries. And because they are uniquely effective as repellents, they are used in the PPE gowns and masks that protect us and our healthcare workers.
Eliminating PFAS would also gut domestic manufacturing of semiconductors, which the Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program has noted are essential for “geopolitically significant technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence and Quantum Computing; and the critical infrastructure and services upon which the daily functioning of societies rest, such as 5G networks.”
The proposed bans on PFAS are based on concern that their presence in our air and water will harm human health. It’s a panic that reaches the highest levels of government. Biden’s campaign promised to designate PFAS a hazardous substance and set PFAS limits, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan has said they would be a “top priority.”
But all this is happening without sound data. While some studies have linked PFAS exposure to higher health risks, others have not, and most researchers agree that the science is inconclusive at best.
A 2020 review from Environmental International on PFAS and health outcomes concluded that “epidemiologic evidence remains limited,” and that “as the literature matures, the needs for advancing research on the specific different health endpoints becomes more clear.”
Without robust evidence, it would be irresponsible to enact blanket bans on a product that has been improving our lives for 80 years. The economic and social tradeoffs would be harmful, making us all worse off. After all, these scientific breakthroughs are the cornerstones of multiple industries and innovations. In most cases, there are no easily available substitutes to swap in that would achieve the same purpose. There may never be.
Of course, federal regulators should aim to mitigate the risks of any contaminants in our water supply. Scientists are already working to find ways to remove PFAS from drinking water, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s new research initiative will add clarity to that pursuit.
But studying potential contaminants takes time. Implementing an all-out ban on PFAS before the research is conclusive — and without alternatives — could be both unscientific and hazardous to our health.
Michael James Barton is the founder of Hyatt Solutions and previously served as the deputy director of Middle East policy at the Pentagon.