The problem with convenience
Take PFAS as an example. PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Some 5,000 to 7,000 chemicals are categorized as PFAS, which are used to make products from firefighting foams to nonstick cookware. Many are immensely useful.
A growing body of evidence shows that certain PFAS may cause health problems. The industrial release of PFAS waste by companies into local waterways has led to thousands of lawsuits claiming that the pollution caused illnesses in residents. Companies that make PFAS have paid millions to the plaintiffs, and have pledged to stop using some PFAS altogether.
So, what’s being done to minimize the potential risks of substances in consumer products? The primary law that protects us from chemical hazards is the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which Congress passed in 1976. TSCA gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to require testing of chemicals and to limit their use.
Under TSCA, several substances have been regulated, including dioxins (often associated with Agent Orange). But the law allowed the 62,000 substances in use prior to 1976 to remain in use, unless they were found to pose an “unreasonable risk to health or to the environment.” The TSCA inventory of chemicals grew to 86,000, then was pared back in 2019 to about 40,000 chemicals actively in use—that’s a lot of chemicals to study.
Under a TSCA overhaul in 2016, the EPA was tasked with prioritizing which ones (including previously unreviewed chemicals) should be assessed for risk based on the following criteria: a chemical’s persistence in the environment and accumulation in the body, its ability to cause cancer in humans, and its toxicity. Now EPA maintains a list of high-priority substances to evaluate and possibly regulate.