On October 3, 2021, late-night news satire show Last Week Tonight aired a 20-minute segment by host John Oliver discussing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Though there are thousands of substances that fall under the PFAS label, Oliver focused particularly on the two most historically well known, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA or C8; CAS 335-67-1) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS; CAS 1763-23-1). Many PFAS can be found today in consumer products such as non-stick cookware, grease-resistant food packaging, rain gear, and waterproof shoes.
Oliver opened the segment by explaining that “[PFAS] chemicals have been linked to a massive array of health issues. High exposure to [C8 & PFOS] alone have been linked to high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, testicular and kidney cancer, and decreased response to vaccines” (FPF reported, also here and here). And he quoted a commentary authored by scientists of the Global PFAS Science Council that PFAS “have a lifetime in the thousands of years” (FPF reported).
While the US Centers for Disease Control has measured PFAS in the blood of over 99% of Americans, Oliver explains the lack of strong action by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is at least partially due to limits placed on the agency by decades old legislation. “Under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, the EPA can require testing for chemicals only when it’s been provided evidence of potential harm.” This is described as a structure “which largely allows chemical companies to regulate themselves.”
For individuals concerned about the PFAS in their products, Oliver quotes Consumer Reports, which explains that in the case of non-stick cookware, PFAS are unlikely to migrate to food if the cookware is not scratched or overheated. But he does note that consumers have been shown to be more highly exposed from “clothing that contains PFAS… or indeed from food wrappers that contain PFAS which are, unfortunately, used by multiple [restaurant] chains including in some of the packaging at Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, and Subway” (FPF reported, also here and here).
Oliver ends the segment stating “it shouldn’t just be on us as individuals, ‘cause PFAS should not be in most consumer products at all.” He calls for legislation limiting the use of PFAS to essential items (FPF reported) and “instead of regulating them one at a time, as we do now, we should do it as an entire class of chemicals. This would enable the EPA to more effectively regulate not just the PFAS already in use but the replacements… when they are introduced” (FPF reported).
A recent paper by Glüge et al. showcased a series of case studies applying the essential-use concept to PFAS used in consumer goods and industrial practices (FPF reported here and here). The Canadian government and the European Chemicals Agency have also launched efforts to consider managing all perfluorinated substances as a single class, and five European nations are drafting a dossier to restrict PFAS in the EU entirely (FPF reported here and here). Civil society organizations are urging transparency in the shift away from PFAS to avoid substituting one harmful chemical with another.
John Oliver (October 3, 2021). “PFAS: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO).” YouTube
Cheryl Hogue (October 3, 2021). “What’s after PFAS for paper food packaging?” Chemical & Engineering News
Zoë Read (September 30, 2021). “Environmental group sets its hopes high for EPA’s coming PFAS ‘roadmap’.” WHYY
Mindy O’Brien and Angela Ruttledge (September 2021). “Chemicals of concern in food contact materials on the Irish market.” VOICE: Ireland (pdf)
Kevin Loria (April 8, 2019). “Should You Be Concerned About PFAS Chemicals?” Consumer Reports
Sharon Lerner (August 12, 2015). “The Teflon Toxin.” The Intercept