Melissa Harris-Perry: On Monday, Environmental Protection Agency, administrator, Michael Regan unveiled his agency's plans to limit so-called forever chemicals or PFAS. PFAS is obviously a pretty funny thing to say out loud, but it's not a joke. It refers to a group of more than 4,000 toxic chemicals that don't break down in the environment.
Michael Regan: PFAS chemicals were once considered a silver bullet when they were developed in the 1940s, ironically a means for making our lives easier. They were used all across America from nonstick cookware to grease-resistant food packaging, stain and water-resistant fabrics, and cleaning products. These unregulated chemical compounds quickly became prominent in our everyday lives. Propelled by the promise of a better life, made easier supposedly by technology
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's right, PFAS are found in everything from our drinking water to our cookware, even some rain jackets, and cosmetics, but PFAS are also hazardous for our health. In fact, they've been linked with certain cancers, thyroid disease, and other health effects.
Michael Regan: It's time that we prioritize the American people's health over profits of big polluters. I want to go as far and as fast as we can to keep our families safe from these toxic chemicals
Melissa Harris-Perry: For more on this, we're joined now by Pat Rizzuto, who is chemicals reporter with Bloomberg Law. Pat, great to have you here.
Pat Rizzuto: Hi, good to be here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now. Why are PFAS referred to as forever chemicals?
Pat Rizzuto: There are a huge group of chemicals. EPA knows of 650 that are made or used in the US, but the actual number is thousands. They're called forever chemicals because some of them, scientists aren't sure how many but two, in particular, PFOA and PFAS, and a chunk of others linger for absolutely years in our bodies, clinging to proteins like blood. Now, eventually, we pee and poop them out, but once they're back in the environment, sunlight weather, and most microbes can't break them down entirely.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, does that mean that they're actually in the air that we're breathing, in the land that we're walking on, and in the food that we're eating?
Pat Rizzuto: They can be. The chemicals have a variety of routes by which they get into the environment. They may be released into the air by factories that are making or using them. They certainly are getting into the water through environments, through effluent, or most famously through certain specialized firefighting foams that are used for really tough to put out fires. They're dumped on land or used in Biosolids, a special type of fertilizers that farmers use.
Right now, their use in biosolids isn't regulated. The EPA just hasn't caught up with that and it's got a lot of research to do.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What do we know about the health effects?
Pat Rizzuto: What we know about the health effects mostly comes from those two and a handful of others that I mentioned, the PFOA and PFAS. For those, it's pretty well established that they increase cholesterol. They decrease baby's birth weight, which affects their health. PFOA is known to weaken the immune system and PFAS disrupts the thyroid hormone, and the chemicals are associated with certain cancers like kidney cancer.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help us to understand what the EPA is saying when it's telling us that it's going to start to reign these in, how is it possible to do so?
Pat Rizzuto: It's going to take a wide range of actions. The EPA is for the first time making a really hard concerted effort to review very closely, any new PFAS that companies want to make. It will be harder to get new ones onto the market. At the same time, it's working with companies to voluntarily agree not to make certain ones, and then it's going to regulate the uses of others.
That's at the beginning of the pipe. At the end of the pipe, it's going to limit any amount of two that can be in drinking water. It's going to propose a regulation to declare those same two as hazardous wastes, which would trigger cleanups across the country. It's trying to develop the technologies and knowledge to address air pollution. It's also researching the fertilizer use of them to see, is that a risk? If so, how big one and how do we control this?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, what can we do on the backend as consumers? Are there ways that individuals can actually help to protect themselves and their families and communities in the meantime, while we're waiting for these regulations to have a long-term effect?
Pat Rizzuto: I would love to give you an easy answer that said yes, but it's not. The chemicals, the ones that are known to be the worst are largely being used in industrial settings, but some of them allegedly can break down as products go through their life cycle. As we toss grease-proof food packaging into the landfills, as we toss wires and cables into the landfill because wires and cables can be coded with them to prevent fires, this stuff builds up, the landfills get rained on, and it leaches out into the water.
This is something that you really do need a big government solution, but the one thing that consumers are doing is demanding alternatives where they're available. You're seeing certain states start to ban food packaging uses of these chemicals because there are alternatives for that use.
You're seeing certain scientists distinguish between what's an absolutely essential use of these chemicals. They're used very successfully to make stents and catheters in our bodies. The fact that they're in there is a really good thing and FDA has approved that, but do we need them for pizza boxes? The big nut there is, who gets to decide what's essential? There is that effort, and Maine has adopted that as a regulatory strategy and the EU is also moving in that direction.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Pat Rizzuto, chemicals reporter for Bloomberg News. Thank you so much for joining us today.
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