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Extremely harmful toxins, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), contaminate water supplies, products, food packaging, and other everyday sources.
It’s why some national legislators want to pass a bill to designate these chemicals as hazardous substances. This designation would then begin action toward federal cleanup standards.
This is a critical issue, especially for marginalized communities that face exposure to PFAS, according to Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.).
“PFAS contamination is a pressing issue for countless communities, and while the EPA under President Biden is working hard to address the issue, it is still playing catch up after four years of inaction,” he said during opening remarks in the committee hearing.
The PFAS Action Act of 2021 and Its Potential Impacts
The bill, PFAS Action Act of 2021, passed in the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee last month.
Specifically, it will “require the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980.”
The bill includes an annual $200 million grant to water utilities and wastewater facilities to treat PFAS over four years.
According to Colorado Newsline, “if passed, the bill would also allow EPA’s administrator to make the decisions to designate all PFAS — some 9,000 chemicals — or just certain types of PFAS as hazardous, within five years of the bill being enacted.”
It would also require EPA to create new drinking water standards for PFAS as hazardous air pollutants.
From here, it will be presented in the full House of Representatives and, if all goes according to plan, brought before that body for a vote. Still, the outcome might still be at-risk as similar PFAS legislation passed the House in 2020.
The Republican-controlled Senate at the time, however, did not take up the bill.
“One year after the House passed this bill, we still don’t have a drinking water standard, a test rule, or a hazardous substance designation for even a single PFAS chemical,” Chairman Pallone said.
PFAS can be found in drinking water, soil and air across the country, and are a growing concern. The chemicals are linked to various health concerns such as high cholesterol, thyroid disease, and testicular and kidney cancer.
The bill would designate two of the most studied PFAS as hazardous substances:
- Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA
- Perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS
That would spark cleanup under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or the Superfund law.
PFAS and Its Impacts At-Large
PFAS contamination is a wide-spread problem.
PFAS’ nickname illustrates its cause for concern: “Forever chemicals.”
PFAS are a class of chemicals manufacturers use as fire-retardants. Despite their extensive use, some data has demonstrated these substances can be an initiator of cancer development.
PFAS are commonly used in food packaging for water and grease resistance. Sandwich wrappers, french-fry boxes, and bakery bags have all been found to contain PFAS, according to a recent Take Out Toxics report.
“Between 2002 and 2016, the FDA approved 19 PFAS for use in food packaging and nearly half of the fast food wrappers collected in 2014 and 2015 had detectable PFAS,” the Environmental Working Group (EWG) wrote in a June 2019 report.
Worse, they have a history of contaminating water supplies, food, and consumer products that go to harm people.
PFAS exposure, according to the CDC, can:
- Affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children
- Lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant
- Interfere with the body’s natural hormones
- Increase cholesterol levels
- Affect the immune system
- Increase the risk of cancer
The Environmental Working Group’s recent findings estimate there are over 600 tainted water sites throughout the U.S. that are impacting 19 million Americans.
While the EPA argues against that claim, one thing is clear: PFAS contamination is a wide-spread issue with severe consequences.
The adverse health impacts have significant impacts on firefighters across the country.
These public servants show higher levels of cancer development from PFAS exposure.
Worse, some researchers say PFAS don’t do their job.
“The use of flame retardants in furniture, children’s products, electronics enclosures, and building materials provides limited fire safety benefit,” researchers at the Green Science Policy Institute write. “For example, research shows they often delay ignition only a few seconds and can make a fire more toxic. Preventing ignition with fire-safe products such as cigarettes, candles, lighters and smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, etc. is a more effective and healthier way to prevent fires.”
PFAS and the Latino Community
On top of PFAS exposure, Latinos face disproportionate burdens of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and certain cancers.
This is due to systemic inequities.
For example, many Latinos in America find themselves trapped in food deserts, or areas that do not contain a grocery store within a 2-mile radius. They also tend to live in food swamps, which are food deserts that also have lots of unhealthy fast food options.
“Fruit and vegetable consumption falls well below recommendations in much of the U.S., particularly among African American, Latino, low educational attainment, and low-income populations,” according a 2016 study published in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health. “Many neighborhoods with large minority populations are classified as food deserts, and lack full-service grocery stores, increasing the difficulty and expense of obtaining healthy foods.”
Facing a lack of healthy food access, many of these families are forced to rely on drive-through chains and cheaper, packaged, processed items for their diet.
These are the kinds of products that contain the highest levels of PFAS contamination, according to the Take Out Toxics report.
What You Can Do
While major PFAS cleanup efforts must come from Washington DC, there are ways to make a difference in reducing Latinos’ harmful, toxic exposure — especially when it comes to food.
We have to create equitable, accessible healthy food access for Latinos and all people.
A few Salud Heroes are working to this end:
- Jorge Olvera is creating community gardens to fight food swamps in Houston.
- Flávia Fernandes is helping San Antonio residents with healthy cookbooks.
- Eloísa Trinidad started a vegan community fridge in New York
- David Miskie is bringing bilingually branded, healthier breakfast food into schools for Latino students.
Also, you can share important information on local food access with your decision-makers.
Just download a Salud America! Health Equity Report Card!
The report card will show you how you will see how your county is doing on food deserts, food access, the amount of fast food restaurants, the amount of grocery stores, and more. The data is compared to the rest of your state and nation.
Email your Health Equity Report Card to community leaders and share it on social media. Use it to make the case to address healthy food access where help is needed most.