March 18, 2024

A bill to secure industry use of toxic PFAS is dead – for now. How could it have harmed Hoosiers?

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Non-stick cooking pans, parchment paper, dental floss, rain boots and carpet are all products that could contain toxic PFAS. - Lauren Chapman / IPB News

Non-stick cooking pans, parchment paper, dental floss, rain boots and carpet are all products that could contain toxic PFAS.

Lauren Chapman / IPB News

Indiana manufacturers pushed to change the state’s definition of toxic PFAS to ensure they can continue using some of those chemicals.

That effort failed at the Statehouse. The bill was stalled in a Senate committee. Lawmakers inserted the language from that bill into another measure on local government matters just days before the end of the 2024 legislative session, but it was taken out before the measure passed.

Still, we’ll likely see more legislation like this as manufacturers try to hold on to chemicals the federal government wants to limit.

What is PFAS and why is it harmful?

If you have something non-stick, stain-resistant or waterproof in your home — there’s a good chance it contains toxic chemicals called PFAS. These human-made chemicals have been found in everything from carpets to fast-food wrappers to firefighting foam.

Some PFAS have been phased out in the U.S. But Republican lawmakers wanted to change the definition so that more than 5,000 still used today would no longer be considered PFAS in Indiana. Rep. Maureen Bauer (D-South Bend) testified against the bill.

“We will have to look a parent in the eye and say 'I fought to keep those toxic chemicals in your baby’s bedding, clothing and bibs, baby bottles and toys, the carpeting and playmats that the child crawls on' — despite PFAS being linked to developmental delays in children," she said.

PFAS have also been linked to kidney cancer and problems with the immune system, among other things.

Why did industry want to change the definition of PFAS?

The Environmental Protection Agency found out the chemicals are a lot more harmful than we once thought. Recently, the agency has been working to remove PFAS from drinking water and contaminated sites and limit products manufactured with them.

That worries companies in Indiana that make and use these chemicals. Marcus Branstad with the trade group the American Chemistry Council spoke in favor of the bill. He said there aren’t a lot of good alternatives for the kinds of PFAS used to make things like medical devices, drugs, cars and steel.

“Things that we want to make sure are available for use but don’t pose the same health risks, don’t pose the same environmental risks," Branstad said.

But that’s not necessarily true — scientists say these chemicals still aren’t safe. More than 150 of them have signed on to a letter opposing the bill — including Marta Venier, who researches PFAS at Indiana University.

“They can still break down into more — into other chemicals that we know for a fact that are toxic and persistent," she said.

Representative Bauer proposed an amendment to the bill that would have made exceptions for medical uses, but it was voted down.

How could a similar bill could affect Hoosiers

It’s likely that the EPA will crack down on PFAS even more in the future, but the federal government moves slow. And what states like Indiana decide to do until then could make a big difference.

Mathew Norris, representing the American Chemistry Council, testified in favor of changing the definition of PFAS to exclude some chemicals. He said this is important to provide manufacturers with the regulatory certainty they need.

“Going forward it’s also to send a message to other states that may be looking at Indiana for future business opportunities that Indiana recognizes the distinction amongst the PFAS chemistries," Norris said.
 

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States like Delaware and West Virginia have also moved to change the definition of PFAS. Meanwhile, at least 20 states have moved to ban the use, sale or distribution of the chemicals in some products. And at least nine have required some manufacturers to notify the state, retailers or consumers that their products contain PFAS.

Representative Bauer said, were Indiana to change the definition, that could affect how all kinds of products are labeled in the state.

“It could be possible in the state of Indiana that a product could have a label saying ‘this is PFAS free,'" she said.

Venier said if bills like this become state laws, it could create a lot of confusion — and, ironically, even reduce the very regulatory certainty that companies say they want.

The more PFAS Indiana puts into the environment, the more people are likely to get sick and the longer it will take to clean them up. University of Notre Dame professor Graham Peaslee said PFAS pollution is already shaping up to be the most expensive cleanup the U.S. has ever faced.

“Everybody in this room has PFAS — a man-made chemical — in their blood. Congratulations. It is already at levels that are causing significant health concerns, but not as bad as it could be and that’s why everybody in the world is trying to get away from these things," he said during testimony on the bill.

Peaslee called the bill “a trial balloon” by industry to see if a business-friendly state like Indiana would swallow it.

At least this year, lawmakers aren’t biting — but it’s highly possible such a bill could reappear next legislative session.

Rebecca is our energy and environment reporter. Contact her at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

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