“Federal action on chemicals seems to be slowing, even as the number we encounter daily grows. With the Trump administration seemingly getting the federal government out of the business of cleaning up the environment, states will have to show the way. Before President Trump was elected, Massachusetts, California and Maine led the charge, regulating certain toxic substances that the federal government had let slip by. Now Washington State has moved to the fore in this fight.

When Stephen Swanson, a retired E.R. doctor, learned that his drinking water contained the industrial pollutant PFOA and several related chemicals, he was alarmed. Dr. Swanson, who lives on Whidbey Island, Wash., began to search for information about the chemicals, trying to figure out how they had gotten into his well and whether the contaminants that he and his family had been drinking for years might have affected their health.

What he found was worrisome. PFOA, best known for its use in the making of Teflon and other nonstick products, had seeped into his well water from a nearby Naval air station that had used firefighting foam that contained the chemicals. PFOA, he learned, stays in human bodies for years and endures in the environment for millenniums. Even at very low levels, exposure to the chemical had been linked to certain cancers, thyroid disease, pre-eclampsia and other health problems. There is also a substantial literature showing that PFOS, a closely related chemical also used in firefighting foam, could lead to a similar constellation of effects.

Dr. Swanson’s experience is not uncommon. According to research from the Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University, at least 15 million Americans in 27 states have PFOA or PFOS in their tap water…

Unlike the federal government, Washington State came up with an ingenious solution. Late last month, it passed the first state laws banning firefighting foam and food packaging containing not just PFOA and PFOS, but the entire class of chemicals to which they belong. Though chemical manufacturers have argued that some compounds in the class are safer than others, Washington banned them all. This class — known as PFAS — is huge. The E.P.A. has received information from manufacturers about hundreds of unique PFAS chemicals. Around the world, thousands are in commercial use. Like PFOS and PFOA, they may affect immune and liver function as well as hormone levels. But, as Dr. Swanson discovered, almost nothing is known for sure about their health effects…

Firefighting foam that doesn’t contain any of the PFAS chemicals, which a growing number of entities around the world are beginning to adopt, is part of the solution. The approach Washington State is taking — banning the entire class of compounds, instead of just one — presents another. Washington’s new laws won’t make it any easier to clean up the extensive mess we’ve already made. Nor can they undo the exposure people have already had or address the health problems that has caused. But by tackling the whole class of dangerous compounds together, the state has shown a way out of the endless contamination cycle for the rest of us, who keep hoping for the best and getting the worst.”

Read the full article by Sharon Lerner.