In the summer of 2021, the US House of Representatives passed the PFAS Action Act of 2021, which was a bipartisan piece of legislation that would have regulated toxic chemicals found in drinking water, as well as classifying those toxic chemicals as “hazardous substances,” in order to spark federal cleanup standards. Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are also known as “forever chemicals,” a group of chemicals used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water.
PFAS coatings can be in a variety of products, including clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging, heat-resistant non-stick cooking surfaces, and the insulation of electrical wire. These “forever chemicals” are an ongoing concern because they do not break down in the environment, can move through soils and contaminate drinking water sources, and build up in humans, fish, and wildlife.
These PFAS chemicals are used in a staggering array of consumer products and commercial applications, and decades of heavy use and environmental disregard have resulted in the contamination of water, soil, and the blood of people and animals in the farthest corners of the world. PFAS are incredibly persistent, and they never fully break down in the environment, remaining in human bodies for years.
Studies have linked PFAS contamination to various health problems, such as weakened immune systems; cancer; increased cholesterol levels; pregnancy-induced hypertension; liver damage; reduced fertility; and increased risk of thyroid disease. Chemical companies such as DuPont and Dow Chemical, along with other businesses, used the so-called “forever chemicals” to make nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, Scotchgard, and other consumer products.
In 2021, the PFAS bill passed in the House by a vote of 241-183, with 23 Republicans crossing the aisle to join Democrats in their support. “PFAS chemicals are an urgent threat to public health,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, (D-MI) said on the House floor in 2021. “Now almost every American has PFAS coursing through their blood after generations of using the chemicals.”
House Majority leader Steny Hoyer, (D-Md.) said that every House lawmaker should be concerned about PFAS contamination. “It affects my district, and every single congressional district in our country is affected by PFAS,” he said on the House floor. “The bill ensures that EPA finally takes measures to prevent future releases of PFAS into our environment and clean them up where such contamination has occurred.”
But, all legislation aimed at regulating toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” died in the Democratic-controlled US Congress last session, as lobbyists used their endless resources to target Republicans in the Senate. The bill was not able to get enough conservative support to overcome a Senate filibuster.
Despite public health advocates and Democratic lawmakers expressing optimism at the possibility of gaining enough bipartisan support, the proposals, which included bans on PFAS in food packaging, textiles, and cosmetics, and measures that would have set stricter cleanup standards, failed to pass the Senate and did not become law.
This year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that virtually no minimum level of exposure to two types of PFAS compounds in drinking water is safe, and public health advocates say the entire chemical class is toxic and dangerous. The chemical industry records billions of dollars in PFAS sales annually, so the direct opposition to establishing protectionist laws that would curtail sales for companies like Dupont and 3M, has been high.
A view of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters on March 16, 2017, in Washington, DC, following Trump's proposed budget cuts for 2018 that sought to cut the EPA's budget by 31% from $8.1 billion to $5.7 billion in 2017. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/via Getty Images)
Loose campaign finance rules in the US make it difficult to know with precision exactly how much chemical companies spent lobbying on PFAS proposals and who they lobbied in Congress and at the EPA. The seven largest PFAS producers and their industry trade groups tallied at least $61m in federal political spending during 2019 and 2020, the bulk of which was directed at lobbying Congress and the Trump administration instead of campaign donations.
“[The chemicals] industry is basically battening down the hatches, digging their trenches for defense, and shooting their salvos to stop anything that would significantly control PFAS,” said Erik Olson, the senior strategic director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Only two minor proposals, compared to the more than 50 bills that focused on PFAS introduced by Congress last session, made it out of committee.
According to federal records, at least 43 companies or industry organizations lobbied on the fate of the PFAS Action Act. While the public has access to some lobbying records, which include those of the American Chemistry Council trade group, the amount specifically spent on the destruction of the act is not publicly available.
The ongoing lack of lobbying transparency is also making it difficult to determine which politicians are actually supporting certain environmental protections and are actively taking money from lobbying groups intent on blockading new protective legislation. For instance: while the PFAS Action Act of 2021 bill passed the House with critical bipartisan support in 2021, it was stalled in the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee.
The Republican Ranking Member in Public Works is Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), who introduced a bill in 2019 that included many of the same provisions. At the time, Capito claimed that her bill would allow the EPA to finally hold PFAS polluters accountable. However, Capito did not support the PFAS Action Act of 2021 this session.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) speaks on the phone outside of a Senate Republican Policy luncheon at the Russell Senate Office Building on May 18, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/via Getty Images)
Instead, Capito made the following statement: “We’ve heard from local stakeholders and studied the real-life impacts of this complex issue, which is why, as we continue to work to address PFAS contamination across the country, the uncertainty and unintended consequences of any policy proposal must be taken into account.”
Senator Capito has received about $180,000 from the chemical industry since 2017 and represents a state with a DuPont factory that is responsible for extensive PFAS contamination. While we have no way of knowing how much DuPont spent on each lobbying endeavor to kill the PFAS Action Act of 2021, records from the last session show that a total of about $2.5 million was spent overall.
A growing number of states, including California and New York, have banned the use of PFAS in cosmetics, textiles, and food packaging. A new ban in Maine on all PFAS chemicals in products except those that qualify as “unavoidable” will go into effect in 2030. While this is clearly an issue that needs to be tackled at the federal level to make over-arching progress, the lack of transparency in lobbying makes it impossible for the electorate to be completely informed on what each politician actually purports to represent.
For this reason, voters in the United States will need to hold all politicians, starting with the Senate, to the adage of showing us what they intend to do with their actions rather than their words. While the issue of the basic consumer battling lobbyists with millions of dollars has never been easy, there are a few simple steps you can take today to change your habits. In order to change the laws on environmental protection, we ultimately need to change the laws on lobbying, and that is a long and winding road.