Protecting Vermonters from Harmful “Forever Chemicals”
PFAS, or poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, are toxic chemicals that have been widely used in industry and consumer products since the 1950s. Known as “forever chemicals” because of their long lifespan, PFAS have been shown to increase cancer risk, impair immune system functioning, and negatively impact fertility, hormone health, and early childhood growth and development. Exposure to PFAS has also been found to exacerbate the effects of Covid-19 and reduce vaccine effectiveness.
PFAS chemicals are used in countless products as a waterproofing agent, including nonstick pots and pans, winter clothing, food packaging, and cosmetics.
PFAS pollution has been at the forefront of anti-toxics advocacy in Vermont since the 2016 discovery of high levels of PFOA, a type of PFAS chemical, in private drinking wells in Bennington County. Bennington residents who were exposed to high levels of PFOA through their drinking water were rightly concerned because of the associated health risks.
Since 2016, the Legislature has taken some significant steps to address PFAS contamination, including the creation of a drinking water standard for five of the most ubiquitous PFAS chemicals. To learn more about the state’s water quality monitoring program for PFAS, visit https://dec.vermont.gov/water/drinking-water/water-quality-monitoring/pfas.
Looking for PFAS in drinking water is important work, but it’s a “downstream” solution that happens only after exposure or contamination has already occurred.
In contrast, S.20 (Act 36), which we helped pass unanimously through the Vermont House and Senate in 2021, is an “upstream” solution that prevents exposure in the first place. It bans PFAS from commonly used products sold in Vermont like food packaging, rugs and carpets, firefighting foam, and ski wax. It also adds several PFAS to Vermont’s list of Chemicals of High Concern to Children.
Now, we’re turning our focus to a broader array of toxic chemicals in another ubiquitous product category with high exposure pathways: cosmetics. The toxicity of cosmetic products has been an open secret for decades, meanwhile the FDA has nearly no ability to regulate their safety. Fortunately, there has been some state action in the last couple years: California and Maryland both passed bans on some toxic chemicals, including several PFAS, from cosmetics.
We now have the opportunity to build off these laws to address an even more comprehensive list of toxics in cosmetics including the entire class of ortho-phthalates and PFAS. Washington State is pursing a nearly identical bill this session, and 6 additional states are tackling toxic cosmetics this year.
Toxic chemicals in cosmetics not only disproportionately affect women and femme-identifying individuals, but particularly threaten femmes of color. Chemicals in products like skin-lightening cream and hair straighteners contain some of the most harmful chemicals and are aggressively marketed to women of color.
It is clear that there is more still to be done when it comes to protecting Vermonters from harmful PFAS chemicals – and we’re committed to leading that charge.