OLYMPIA – When a tanker truck carrying more than 11,000 gallons of gasoline overturned on Interstate 90 near Issaquah and burst into flames big enough to close the highway in both directions – during evening rush hour – authorities were thankful no one was killed or injured.
And yet 14 years later, the City of Issaquah was still dealing with the aftermath. Some 125 firefighters called to the scene doused the blaze with water and firefighting foams.
Those foams contained chemicals scientists say may cause a range of health problems, including increasing the risk of cancer, lowering a woman’s chance of getting pregnant and boosting cholesterol levels in children. So-called “perfluorinated chemicals” turned up in Issaquah’s drinking water in 2016, costing the city $1 million to install new water filters.
Perfluorinated chemicals from firefighting foams have also contaminated drinking water in Coupeville on Whidbey Island, Joint Base Lewis McCord, and near Spokane Fairchild Air Force Base and nearby Airway Heights in Washington. They have also fouled drinking water in communities in 33 other states. And in a study that collected fast-food packaging in western Washington and other locations, the same chemicals are found in one-third of the paper wrappers.
Now state lawmakers are considering legislation that would make Washington the first state to pass a law banning this class of chemicals, nicknamed PFAS.
“We know that PFAS chemicals have been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and reduced birth weight,” said Sen. Lisa Wellman at a public hearing on January 29.
Wellman, a Democrat whose district includes Issaquah, is sponsoring Senate Bill 6396. Her bill, along with its companion in the House, would ban the manufacturing and sale of paper-based food packaging containing perfluorinated chemicals in Washington State. Another set of bills targets firefighting foams and protective gear.
Perfluorinated chemicals are used widely in consumer and industrial products. Because they repel grease and liquids, they are found in carpeting, nonstick skillets, children’s toys, food wrappers and more. People can be exposed through food, but environmentalists and government regulators are most concerned about the state’s water.
As with firefighting foams, perfluorinated chemicals in food packaging can leach into soil and eventually water sources.
The federal Food and Drug Administration requires companies to demonstrate the safety of food products and packaging, but it’s the federal Environmental Protection Agency that regulates drinking water. The FDA worked with industry to voluntarily phase out two perfluorinated chemicals before banning them entirely in 2016. The EPA then issued drinking water advisory levels for those same chemicals, but it’s up to local governments to come up with enforceable regulations.
Industry has come out against both regulatory proposals in Washington.
“The bill would restrict all PFAS unnecessarily,” said Jessica Bowman, testifying in opposition to SB 6369. She represents an industry association of perfluorinated chemical manufacturers called Fluorocouncil. “With over 3,000 substances falling within the class of PFAS, they vary significantly… and only a small subset of those are actually used in certain food packaging,” Bowman told legislators.
Regulating specific perfluorinated chemicals, however, is turning into a game of whack-a-mole. The banned perfluorinated chemicals, called “long-chains” in reference to their molecular structure, were replaced with closely related chemicals. Today’s substitutes, “short chains,” are now the subject of scrutiny.
“The American Public Health Association has expressed concern that all PFAS share problematic properties with legacy compounds,” said Erika Schreder, speaking in support of SB 6396 on behalf of the environmental group Toxic Free Future. “These are chemicals that should be phased out wherever possible, and that includes the legacy compounds and the current use compounds.”
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says consumers who want to minimize their exposure to the chemicals may avoid microwave popcorn, nonstick cookware, stain-repellent treatments and paints and sealants that contain PFAS.
In a study Schreder cited, researchers collected more than 400 cups, sandwich wrappers and other food packaging from fast-food restaurants. One-quarter of the samples were collected in Western Washington. One-third of the items had PFAS chemicals in them.
The most extensively studied perfluorinated chemicals are those the FDA and EPA addressed in 2016. Laboratory studies show animals exposed to high doses of certain perfluorinated chemicals experienced changes in liver, thyroid and pancreatic function, as well as changes in hormone levels. Health risks in humans are less well understood, but they range from developmental effects to increased risk of cancer.
State officials echo environmentalists’ concerns because of perfluorinated chemicals’ ability to remain in the environment indefinitely and accumulate over time.
“We’re already finding the (newer) PFAS in Washington’s environment — in rivers, lakes, marine samples, fish, osprey eggs, wastewater treatment plant effluent,” said Darin Rice of the Washington Ecology Department. “Our worry is that if the newer short chains start showing the same problems as their long chain predecessors, it could be a very expensive and difficult issue to address.”
Environmental groups claim safer food packaging materials are already available. But the issue of replacements is contentious. “Non-perfluorinated alternatives don’t always provide the same properties and are generally more expensive,” argued Bowman of FluoroCouncil.
In the case of food packaging, the viability of replacements boils down to cost.
“One of the things that gets lost in discussions like this is the economics of food costs,” said Carolyn Logue, representing the Washington Food Industry Association. The legislation, she said, could hurt retailers and consumers by raising food prices.
When it comes to firefighting foams, the real issue is how well they work. Perfluorinated foams are necessary to fight chemical fires, like the one that shut down I-90 in 2002. In fact, federal regulations mandate their use at certain facilities such as military bases and airports, and the bills under consideration make exceptions for those. Still, the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters testified in favor of phasing out perfluorinated foams where possible. The labor union believes the phaseout would help prevent cancer among firefighters.
The state Ecology Department is studying perfluorinated chemicals in firefighting foams and other products as part of a Chemical Action Plan, a report to the legislature recommending actions for reducing or eliminating the use of a toxic substance.
Bowman, FluoroCouncil’s lobbyist, sits on the advisory council for the Chemical Action Plan. She asked legislators to hold off on regulations until the process is complete. Taking legislative action now, she said, would be “premature.”
Environmentalists disagree. Ecology’s final report is scheduled for 2019, and Ivy Sager-Rosenthal with Toxic Free Future said calls to wait for its release are a “delay tactic.” Although the proposed bans would not go into effect until 2020 or 2022, Sager-Rosenthal said passing legislation now would send a signal to manufacturers. “You’d probably see them switch before the bans go into effect,” she said.
At least one bill sponsor seems to think industry will make the switch with or without legislation. When asked about the specifics of her bill, Wellman said, “One of the reasons I agreed to sponsor this bill is because it sends a message to the food industry that there’s a problem. It’s a messaging platform.”
“I would rather say to the industry, ‘Heads up, we’re studying this. You’ve got a runway. Start thinking about repackaging,’” Wellman said. “My expectation is that we’re going to find that it’s not safe in some places.”
Lawmakers are moving ahead with the bills. Each faces one more committee before heading to the floor, where lawmakers have until Feb. 14 to vote. The legislation would then have to make it through the opposite house in order to become law.
Robert McClure contributed to this report.
Note: This story has been updated to specify that Washington would be the first state to pass a law banning these chemicals. The story previously said Washington would be the first state to regulate these chemicals. Regulatory agencies in other states have taken action to, for example, set limits on how much of the chemicals are allowed in drinking water.