The devil is in the details, as they say, and when it comes to regulating per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, there are a lot of details. That was the message from Maine Department of Environmental Protection staff when they updated lawmakers earlier this month on their efforts to create rules around the first-in-the-nation PFAS reporting law.
The law, passed in 2021, requires manufacturers of products with intentionally added PFAS to report to the environmental department beginning in 2025, and eventually bans certain items from being sold in Maine starting in 2030.
PFAS is in, well, basically everything, which makes reporting on it very complicated. A typical car, for instance, might contain 30,000 individual components; with the motor for a power window alone composed of 190 different substances, DEP staffer Mark Margerum said, reading from comments staff have received from industry representatives and environmental advocates since the law’s passage.
Manufacturers are struggling to identify whether their products contain PFAS because supply chains are so complex, and international companies aren’t required to disclose what’s in their products.
At any point in that chain a company may claim that information is confidential and they won’t give it up, Margerum said. “They’re not in Maine, they’re not tuned in to our statute. It becomes a difficulty for the final product manufacturer that does have business in Maine.”
The DEP got comments from around the world. “This has the attention of many organizations and entities on a global scale,” said Tom Graham, who works on rulemaking for the DEP.
Most of the companies are aware that PFAS regulation is coming, Margerum said. Their comments are that it’s really difficult, it will take time and they may not be able to get complete information. (The rule was supposed to go into effect this past January; the legislature has already delayed its implementation once.)
Several representatives, including Rep. Mike Soboleski, R-Phillips, and Rep. Richard Campbell, R-Orrington, asked repeatedly for speakers to identify numbers of people who had died or been harmed by PFAS exposure.
“The devastation this is going to cause, without actually having a specific number or a specific amount of damage that it’s going to cause to human life, is not justifiable.”
But Committee Chair Sen. Stacy Brenner, D-Cumberland, pushed back, saying she felt the line of questioning was “misguided.”
“No one’s death certificate is going to say ‘the cause of death was PFAS.’ It’s going to say the cause of death was cancer, it was a tumor. And the correlation that we’re talking about is the association with the exposure to the PFAS that increases the person’s risk.”
The law provides a carveout for products where there’s no current substitute for PFAS. The DEP’s staff is attempting to get a list of proposed exempt products by March of 2024.
“We hear from some industries that we really need this now, because if they don’t get [the carveout] they have a multiyear process of replacing some of these chemicals and reworking their manufacturing process.”
“It would be a huge database. Just managing that would be interesting,” Margerum said, recalling a database he’d been involved in with fewer than 30 entities inputting information. “That was very challenging … I think we’re going to get a lot of requests for technical assistance.”
Some places are identifying the “low-hanging fruit” and going after it, said Margerum. Nordic and alpine ski waxes, for instance, have been banned by Park City, Utah (home to the 2002 Winter Olympics). Colorado has prohibited PFAS in broad categories of products, including cosmetics, textile furnishings and indoor and outdoor furniture.
Jonatan Kleimark, who works with a Swedish NGO called ChemSec, gave lawmakers in Maine an overview of what’s being done in the European Union, which is proposing a comprehensive PFAS ban.
ChemSec keeps a list of what it considers safer alternatives that can be used in clothes, cookware, furniture and other products. “For many of the consumer uses I would say there are alternatives,” Kleimark said.
Industrial applications tend to be more complicated, but companies are looking. “There is a business opportunity to find these alternatives,” he added, because “that will be the future.”
The EU has been working on restrictions of various PFAS-related substances since 2008, Kleimark said.
“It’s been a long work and there’s still a lot to do.”