Protecting Vermonters From Harmful “Forever Chemicals”

Protecting Vermonters from Harmful “Forever Chemicals”

Toxic Chemicals in Consumer Products 

For decades, VPIRG has focused on the nexus between the environment and human health. Specifically, our goal is to eliminate, whenever possible, the use of toxic chemicals that threaten public health and the environment.  

For many years, our work focused on tailpipes and smokestacks. As these point sources of pollution began to be addressed through myriad state and federal laws, our attention turned to the consumer products containing toxic ingredients and the manufacturing processes that created them. The use of toxic chemicals in consumer products is often a major exposure pathway for Vermonters, some of whom are already vulnerable from exposure to toxic chemicals in their drinking water or other exposures.  

More than a decade ago, VPIRG and other partners formed the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Vermont, and in the years since, Vermont has become a national leader when it comes to identifying and eliminating toxic chemicals in products.  

We have methodically targeted toxic chemicals used in a range of household consumer products, resulting in strict regulation of toxics including phthalates, bisphenol A, flame retardants, PFAS, methylene chloride, and more. These campaigns have resulted in nationally precedent-setting policies that have protected the health of Vermonters and created models for others to follow.    


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. 

Personal Care Products

Since 2022, we’ve aimed our focus on a broader array of toxic chemicals in a ubiquitous product category with high exposure pathways: cosmetics. The toxicity of cosmetic products has been an open secret for decades, but the FDA has nearly no ability to regulate their safety. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act (FDCA) has only restricted 11 chemicals since 1938, while the European Union has banned over 1,800 chemicals

Fortunately, there has been some state action in the last couple of years: California, Maryland, Washington, and Oregon have all taken action to ban toxics 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. 

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 one of the least regulated industries in the nation, with over 10,000 chemicals in the personal care and beauty market today. 

Even with the most ambitious state policies, our broken regulatory system which treats chemicals as “innocent until proven guilty” will almost definitely continue allowing likely carcinogens to be used in personal care products. 

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy for consumers to tell whether their consumer products are safe – but there are some good resources out there. We recommend visiting these sites to find out more about how to buy safe personal care products. 

Policy Successes

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

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, 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, and bans phthalates and BPA from food packaging. 

Our Environmental Health team has also celebrated success in: 


Scroll to Top