Recent US regulation of PFAS stalled by lobbying efforts, claims new report
Nov 10 2023
The regulatory landscape for chemicals in the United States has long been a battlefield, with corporate interests often tipping the scales. Recent investigations into lobbying activities from 2019 through 2022 have uncovered a persistent campaign by major chemical producers to block stringent regulations on a group of substances that have come to be known as “forever chemicals,” due to their persistent nature in the environment and the human body. These substances, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), have been linked to a range of adverse health effects, yet the industry has dedicated vast financial resources to ensure their continued use.
A groundbreaking report by Food & Water Watch has brought to light the extent of the chemical industry's lobbying efforts against PFAS regulation, revealing an expenditure exceeding $110 million within a four-year span. This substantial financial influence has been instrumental in stalling progressive legislation meant to address the burgeoning PFAS contamination crisis in the United States.
PFAS are synthetic chemicals found in numerous consumer products for their water- and stain-resistant properties. Yet their convenience comes at a high price. They are virtually indestructible in the environment and accumulate in the human body, leading to a myriad of health issues including cancer, liver damage, and immune system disruption.
The stakes are exceptionally high. Nearly all Americans have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood, and the estimated cost of cleaning up PFAS contamination runs into billions of dollars. However, despite the increasing public awareness and mounting scientific evidence, the legislative response has been sluggish and inadequate.
A deep dive into the Food & Water Watch report, titled “PFAS and the Chemistry of Concealment,” exposes the strategic efforts by major PFAS producers and trade groups. Key players such as Dow and DuPont, historical manufacturers of PFAS, together with the American Chemistry Council (ACC) — the industry's powerful lobbying arm — employed a veritable army of lobbyists, cumulatively spending $55.7 million and $58.7 million respectively, to influence legislative outcomes.
During this period, Congress saw the introduction of more than 130 bills related to PFAS. Only a fraction of these bills saw the light of day, with just four becoming law. None effectively addressed the critical issue of industry-funded cleanup efforts.
One piece of legislation that faced vehement opposition was the PFAS Action Act of 2019 and 2021, aimed at designating certain PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund program, which would have forced producers to bear the financial responsibility for contamination. Although the bill passed the House of Representatives, it faltered in the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, a committee wherein two-thirds of its members had accepted campaign contributions from PFAS manufacturers, with more than half receiving contributions from the ACC.
The industry's influence isn't restricted to lobbying alone. Political Action Committees (PACs) have been utilized to funnel corporate donations toward influencing elections and policy-making. Since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010, the floodgates opened for unlimited corporate spending on political campaigns, exacerbating the influence that companies can wield in the corridors of power.
The saga of PFAS and the chemical industry's efforts to maintain the status quo is a stark example of how weak regulations can perpetuate environmental and public health crises. The Food & Water Watch report and subsequent investigations have illuminated the industry's tactics: obscuring scientific findings, exploiting regulatory gaps, and leveraging their financial might to stave off legislation that would hold them accountable.
The legacy of PFAS is a dark one, marked by decades of environmental degradation and public health threats. The relentless lobbying against stronger PFAS regulation exemplifies a concerning dynamic in American politics where corporate interests can outweigh public health and environmental integrity.
The battle over PFAS regulation is not merely a question of environmental policy but a profound challenge to the principles of democracy and public welfare. As awareness grows and the pressure mounts from communities, activists, and some lawmakers, there is a glimmer of hope that the tide may be turning. The comprehensive documentation of industry lobbying, combined with growing public outrage and a more informed electorate, could spur decisive action to mitigate the PFAS crisis.
Yet, as the lobbying dollars suggest, the path forward is fraught with challenges. The powerful chemical industry has shown that it will invest heavily to protect its interests. It will require concerted effort and sustained advocacy to counteract this influence and achieve meaningful regulation that prioritizes human health and the environment over corporate profits.
As the report by Food & Water Watch underscores, the fight against PFAS is emblematic of broader struggles to regulate harmful substances in the U.S. The case of PFAS reveals not just the dangers of these chemicals, but also the pervasive influence of industry money in politics and the urgent need for comprehensive chemical reform that ensures public and environmental health take precedence over the economic interests of a few.
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