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‘Lead with Science’ Can’t Stop at PFAS Chemistries

Tom Flanagin

The recent re-introduction of the PFAS Action Act in the U.S. House of Representatives has revived the conversation surrounding the regulation of per- and polyfluorinated substances known as PFAS. 

During the 2020 presidential campaign, then-Vice President Joe Biden made a commitment to the American people to lead with “science and truth” as president when considering big decisions on public health and environmental regulation. And just one week after the new administration took office, the White House issued a “Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking,” noting that “it is the policy of [the Biden] administration to make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data.”  

The reintroduction of the PFAS Action Act presents an opportunity for now-President Biden to follow through on this promise and tell Congress to put science first. 

Unfortunately, the language contained in the PFAS Action Act is deeply flawed. It subjects all PFAS to a one-size-fits-all regulatory approach regardless of their very different characteristics and uses. This is not leading with science. Congress would not move to ban farmers and grocers from selling strawberries because they share certain molecular similarities with poisonous holly berries – and yet, that is precisely the type of regulation being proposed by some in Congress for PFAS.  

PFAS are vital to enabling our lives in the 21st century. They are a diverse universe of chemistries that, for example, are contained in COVID-19 tests and PPE, which help save lives around the world in the midst of the pandemic. PFAS also make it possible to harness power from alternative energy sources and are integral to the manufacture of semiconductors and technologies like fuel cells, solar panels, and advanced battery technologies, which power sustainability efforts around the globe. They are also contained in dozens of consumer products individuals use each and every day. 

With these widely varied uses across PFAS also come important fundamental differences, and it is not scientifically accurate or appropriate to group all of these chemistries together. This broad universe of chemistries includes liquids, gasses and solids – in no other area do we treat all of these the same and that should be no different here. 

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are approximately 600 kinds of distinct PFAS manufactured and/or used in the United States. These individual chemistries have unique biological, physical, and chemical properties. If we acknowledge this amazing diversity of chemistry, we must also acknowledge the inherent need to regulate these differently based on science, as opposed to treating them as a single entity.  

Put simply, all PFAS are not the same. Treating them as such ignores established science, and even prominent organizations like the Environmental Council of States and the Vermont Department of Environment Conservation have acknowledged as recently as April that it is “not feasible” to regulate PFAS as a class. PFAS each have unique properties and uses, as well as environmental and health profiles, and therefore cannot be regulated effectively or on a defensible scientific basis by a one-size-fits-all methodology.  This also runs counter to the EPA’s career scientists who have already expressed their cautions about regulating PFAS as a class. 

There are clear scientific rationales for not treating all PFAS the same. For these reasons, different PFAS require different regulatory approaches. Given these differences, taking an overly broad and non-scientific approach to regulate all PFAS together will not be effective, will not address current regulatory priorities, and will negatively impact a broad swath of the economy.  Regulators, legislators, industry, and other stakeholders should be working collaboratively to address these issues and science should guide the smart regulation of these vitally important chemistries. 

It is important to appropriately and effectively regulate PFAS chemicals because of how prevalent they are in Americans’ lives. The American Chemistry Council and its members support this effort and have been committed to working with lawmakers at the federal and state level to help frame science-based, effective regulations that protect both the environment and consumer health.  

We support the strong, science-based regulation of chemicals, including PFAS substances. Our industry has worked proactively and played a leadership role in helping manage specific PFAS chemistries. What’s more, a broad regulatory framework has already been established by the U.S. EPA and Congress to deal with much of what the new PFAS Action Act attempts to do – but without grouping PFAS as a class. This makes the PFAS Action Act not only scientifically uninformed, but unnecessary in light of existing regulations. 

As Congress considers potential approaches for managing PFAS, the Biden administration has an opportunity to follow through on its commitment and tell Congress to allow established science to lead regulatory and public health decision-making.  

Adopting a one-size-fits-all grouping for all PFAS chemistries would be a rejection, not an embrace, of scientific thinking. If the PFAS Action Act were to become law, this would undercut President Biden’s pledge that “science is back” under his administration. Let’s work together to use science to regulate smartly.

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About the Author

Rob serves as Vice President of ACC’s Chemical Products and Technology Divisions (CPTD) and is a member of the ACC senior management team. He is responsible for managing ACC’s more than 100 self-funded chemical product and sector groups. These groups are the foundation of the business of chemistry and are focused on research, health, environment and safety performance, advocacy, public outreach and education on specific chemicals and technologies. CPTD provides strategic counsel, technical consulting, advocacy, and management services for manufacturers and downstream users.

Rob has had a variety of roles during his time at ACC including responsibility for state, federal and international legislative and regulatory affairs on environmental, health, safety and energy issues. He also serves as the Executive Director for ACC’s Foundation for Chemistry Research and Initiatives.

Previously, Rob worked at the Small Business Council supporting growth strategies for small and medium enterprises as well as Caterpillar USA and its national trade group, the Industrial Truck Association, with responsibilities for state, federal, and international government affairs and economics.

Rob holds degrees in political science and economics from Boston College and Sophia University in Japan, and an International Masters in Business Administration from Georgetown University.

American Chemistry Council

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) represents the leading companies engaged in the multibillion-dollar business of chemistry. ACC members apply the science of chemistry to make innovative products, technologies and services that make people's lives better, healthier and safer. ACC is committed to improved environmental, health, safety and security performance through Responsible Care®; common sense advocacy addressing major public policy issues; and health and environmental research and product testing. ACC members and chemistry companies are among the largest investors in research and development, and are advancing products, processes and technologies to address climate change, enhance air and water quality, and progress toward a more sustainable, circular economy.

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