British showman and comedian John Oliver, known for his punchy and thorough rants on public policy, has set his sights on a new target: man made chemicals, known as PFAS. In his now viral rant, Oliver explains how PFAS chemicals are problematic for human health and wants all of these chemicals to be declared hazardous by law. This is, in fact, what Congress is attempting to do via the PFAS Action Act, which has passed the House and is waiting for a final vote in the Senate.
While Oliver’s rant does accurately explain some of the serious problems these man-made chemicals present, especially if dumped into waterways and contaminating the water supply, there is a lot that the late night show host misses in regards to how, or why, these chemicals should be regulated.
It is important to note that these chemicals have been largely phased out from being used where they are not necessary. A 2018 Toxicological Profile for Perfluoroalkyls by the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry says that “Industrial releases have been declining since companies began phasing out the production and use of several perfluoroalkyls in the early 2000s.” In addition to that, a CDC report shows that since 2000, “mean blood levels of PFOS have declined approximately 84 percent and mean blood levels of PFOA have declined about 70 percent,” and recent reports are showing that bodies of water contain only trace amounts of PFAS, and they have been steadily declining. These are all positive developments, and should be celebrated.
The issue with the “one size fits all” approach, advocated by Oliver and being pushed by Congress, is that this fails to appropriately address the hazards and risks presented by each of the 5000 chemicals that fall under the classification of PFAS. This is an important distinction, because the risk that PFAS presents for human health largely depends on how humans are exposed to these chemicals.
The most popular example is when, decades ago, the man-made chemical C8 was dumped into waterways, causing an array of health issues and substantial lawsuits. This is of course problematic, never should have happened, and should never happen again. That said, the use of other man-made chemicals, which would be classified as hazardous if Congress proceeds down this path, are vital for medical technologies and consumer products, and are used in a way that presents very little, if any, threat to human health.
For example, some of these chemical compounds are vital for contamination-resistant gowns and drapes, implantable medical devices, stent grafts, heart patches, sterile container filters, needle retrieval systems, tracheostomies, catheter guide wire for laparoscopy and inhaler canister coatings. To declare all these chemical compounds hazardous, without evaluating the risk associated with each use, puts lifesaving medical technologies in jeopardy and patient safety at risk. In fact, Congressman Larry Bucshon, who was a heart surgeon, criticized the PFAS Action Act for failing to include a revision that would exempt PFAS use in medical devices, stating that the bill in its current form would jeopardize access to life-saving drugs.
Another major disruption that would occur if the act proceeds as written is it would significantly jeopardize the domestic smartphone market, used by the vast majority of Americans everyday. As cell phones and 5G technology continue to grow and require faster speeds at smaller sizes, these compounds are involved in everything from producing semiconductors to helping cool data centers for cloud computing. Forcibly removing these chemicals from the production process, especially because they present very little risk to humans, will drastically disrupt supply chains and inflate costs that will hurt low-income people the hardest.
It should be said that lawmakers and late night talk show hosts (yes even them) must realize that regulations are enacted based on risk, and risk is the hazard a substance presents multiplied by the exposure to it. Banning PFAS from being used in the production process for smartphones is akin to banning mercury from being used in thermometers because it is harmful when ingested, or banning chlorine from being used in pools because it is harmful if you ingest it.
Some bans/restrictions might very well be needed and justified but banning an entire category of evolving products won't serve the consumer. A more appropriate response would be to evaluate these chemicals and substances based on the risk they present and how they are used, rather than lumping them all together and risk enacting bad policy that will have a myriad of consequences.