Since the COVID-19 pandemic began wreaking havoc back in March, our state leaders have been tasked with protecting the health and well-being of Vermonters under incredibly challenging circumstances. In many ways Vermont is faring better than most states, but there is still important work to be done.
One priority that must not be forgotten is the need to protect against health threats not directly related to COVID. This is particularly true for toxic threats that may worsen the effects of the disease, such as PFAS chemicals (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a.k.a. forever chemicals).
Just last month, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry released a statement on the intersection between PFAS exposure and COVID-19, which cites studies showing a correlation between exposure to PFAS and a suppression of the immune system's ability to make antibodies — a critical component for fighting COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
As Dr. Linda S. Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and National Toxicology Program (NTP), said, "PFAS can weaken our immune system, making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases like COVID-19."
When the Legislature reconvenes on Aug. 25, legislators will have a chance to give final passage to legislation (S.295) that would better protect Vermont families from PFAS chemicals found in some commonly used products like food packaging and residential carpets.
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 PFAS has been linked to cancer, thyroid, liver and kidney disease, as well as harm to the immune system.
Since 2016, the Legislature has taken some significant steps to address PFAS contamination, most notably the creation of a drinking water standard for five of the most ubiquitous PFAS chemicals. 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.295, which is now in the House Human Services Committee after passing the Senate unanimously, is an "upstream" solution that prevents exposure in the first place. It will ban PFAS from commonly used products sold in Vermont like food packaging, rugs and carpets, and firefighting foam that include PFAS. It will also add PFAS to Vermont's list of Chemicals of High Concern to Children.
The issue of PFAS in food packaging is made more urgent because restaurants have shifted primarily to take-out service during the pandemic, meaning consumers are eating more food that has come into contact with PFAS chemicals.
Testing by the Center for Environmental Health in 2018 showed that 81 percent of tested clamshell to-go containers contained PFAS. Additionally, a national study released earlier this month by the Mind the Store campaign found that nearly half of all take-out food packaging tested from fast-food chains — including McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's — had fluorine levels suggesting PFAS treatment.
In response to this public health threat, New York State's Legislature passed a ban of PFAS in food packaging last month, which now awaits the governor's signature. Restrictions on PFAS in food packaging have also passed in Maine, Washington state, and in multiple municipalities. Alternatives to PFAS packaging are affordable and readily available.
S.295 is also important because it begins to tackle a major issue of equity: disproportionate exposure to toxic chemicals. According to a report released last year by the State of Oregon on equity and toxic pollution, marginalized groups like low income communities and people of color "experience heightened risks or exposure from chemicals that may be found in food contact materials."
In banning PFAS in residential carpeting, the bill protects another vulnerable group in our society: children. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control named carpet as the number one exposure pathway to PFAS for infants and toddlers. Children may also be more threatened by adverse health effects related to food packaging, since one-third of children in the U.S. children eat fast food every day.
Despite the obvious benefits of banning PFAS chemicals in consumer products and firefighting foam and the fact that S.295 has already won unanimous approval in the Senate, there is no guarantee that the House will pass it this year. Now would be a great time to let your representatives know that protecting public health means banning PFAS, too.
Marcie Gallagher is an environmental associate with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, VPIRG. She lives in Burlington.