Here’s What Congress Should Ask When Industry Tries to Spread PFAS Disinformation Today

September 10, 2019 | 1:05 pm
Raúl de la Nuez/UCS
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

At a hearing tomorrow in the House Oversight and Reform Committee, the primary makers and users of PFOA and PFOS, 3M, DuPont, and Chemours, will be testifying about their roles in the PFAS contamination fiasco. This follows a July hearing featuring the voices of community members and state agencies who have been impacted by the failure of these companies to control releases of these substances for decades.

At the last hearing, people whose lives have been turned upside down by PFAS urged industry to stop lying and start fixing the problem. Now, members of Congress will be tasked with asking the companies responsible for this mess about those lies and how they’re going to clean up their mess and pay for the damage. Since the opportunity to ask company executives tough questions under oath doesn’t come around every day, members need to ask the right questions. Here’s what they should focus on:

Will you own up to your lies?

We know 3M and DuPont buried scientific data about the health impacts of PFAS for over fifty years to avoid having to deal with the financial blowout that would result from paying for cleanup, medical costs, and rolling the dice with regulatory fixes. The companies’ own data showed that PFOA and PFOS were hazardous and linked to a range of health problems and EPA assessments on replacement PFAS are showing similar effects. In an advertisement published by 3M’s Chief Technology Officer back in May, the company wrote that it supported regulations based in science. Great! Why not work with Congress to support initiatives that would ensure EPA uses the science to take action on this class of chemicals rather than letting them continue to fall through the regulatory cracks? At this point, there is already so much financial risk and liability that the companies face associated with PFAS lawsuits that are popping up across the country that it makes more sense to stop denying the evidence and spend the time and resources necessary to remedy the problem and develop innovative technology that might help agencies test for, clean up, and address the problem faster.

Companies should be grilled on what they knew and when they knew it, including what they know now about replacement PFAS and when they will make all information they have available to the public for scrutiny. They should also be asked if there are locations they know about that haven’t yet been tested for PFAS that should be. It’s time to get everything on the table so that Congress and the federal government can make fully informed decisions.

Will you take responsibility for cleaning up and paying for the harms caused by PFAS?

It’s unfathomable that it has been a half century since scientists began to understand the harms that PFAS chemicals could have on animals and the human body. The companies that created this mess should be paying for water utilities to test for and filter out these chemicals, and to remove contamination from the source. One way of broaching this issue is by ensuring that PFAS are regulated as hazardous substances under the Superfund law. The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act  contains this amendment. But the chemical companies argue against this provision because they claim that there’s insufficient information on the whole class of PFAS. That is absolutely rich coming from the industry that put thousands of chemicals on the market before proving their safety or even developing methods for finding them in our water systems. The reason we are facing the scale of this problem is because companies failed to show their products were safe and EPA failed to hold them accountable with strong regulatory scrutiny. Best available science should inform policymaking, which is why a class-based approach to regulating PFAS needs to be considered by the agency. This is supported by departing NIEHS director, Linda Birnbaum, who has stated, “Approaching PFAS as a class for assessing exposure and biological impact is the best way to protect public health.”

3M recently wrote that it “proactively” invested $150 million in water testing and carbon infiltration systems in the US to clean up PFAS contamination in drinking water. But it’s hard to muster much appreciation when you compare this figure with its 2018 revenue of nearly $33 billion. While companies claim to be helping fix the problem, they are barely making a dent. Instead, states and local governments (paid for by taxpayers) are fronting the bills for water testing, filters, diverting water sources, and other remedies.

Companies must be asked point blank how much they have spent and plan to spend to test for PFAS, clean up their sites, conduct research on best remediation techniques, and remedy the health impacts that so many across the country, including their own employees, have suffered.

Will you commit to stopping use of the disinformation playbook?

The chemical industry is using the same tired science-denial tactics from the disinformation playbook that have been used by companies in order to fight regulations or minimize liability. But Pandora’s box has been opened and the truth is unavoidable. It’s time for Dupont, Chemours, 3M, and all other companies that have used and disposed of PFAS into the environment to tell the truth and help to be part of the solution rather than continuing to be part of the problem. There are children in schools, daycares, and homes drinking water that is contaminated with PFAS. We need to figure out how to clean up our environment and water resources now so that yet another generation doesn’t have to deal with the health consequences of the chemical industry’s foray into fluorochemicals.

Companies should be asked to commit to stopping hiding inconvenient science, manufacturing uncertainty about the science to deceive the public, and co-opting government offices in order to enact policies that are not grounded in science. Instead, they should support science-based safeguards that will protect the public, regardless of whether it affects their bottom lines.

Congress can help fight the PFAS playbook

Responses to strong questions from members of Congress will likely show company executives defaulting to sowing doubt and playing up uncertainty in their testimony instead of taking responsibility for their actions. Fortunately, Congress has the power to enact legislation that will finally hold companies accountable. As members negotiate final language of the NDAA, it is vital that strong PFAS protections that would make polluters pay to clean up their pollution, help us understand more about the scope of contamination, and further regulate PFAS releases into the environment, are in the final version of the Act.