Fighting ‘Forever Chemicals’:

How the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment supports a recently proposed ban on PFAS

By: Photon Kamvisseli Suarez

April 17, 2023

In July of 2022, the United Nations General Assembly recognized the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, and in doing so highlighted the importance of international cooperation in protecting, respecting, and fulfilling this human right. Violations of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment through environmental damage can harm the “effective enjoyment of all human rights.” 

One major environmental threat facing the international community is the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS or ‘forever chemicals.’ These chemicals, created by manufacturers such as 3M and DuPont, are often used to make products or coatings that are heat, oil, stain, grease, or water resistant. They are commonly referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ because they do not break down in the environment, causing contamination. PFAS can be passed from soil and water to the animals and plants growing and grazing there, and can lead to the production of food that is contaminated with PFAS. PFAS have now been detected in wildlife and even human blood. Research has indicated that exposure to high levels of PFAS may have serious health effects including reproductive effects, developmental effects in children, increased risk of some cancers, decreased immune function, hormonal disruptions, and increased cholesterol or risk of obesity. 

Widespread use of PFAS in everyday household products leads to contamination of our food and water supply and violates the right to a healthy environment. This contamination has a detrimental effect on our food systems, putting farmers out of business and making formerly fertile land unusable. In Maine, widespread use of toxic sludge as fertilizer has led to PFAS contamination on at least 56 farms, and testing in over 1,000 sites where potentially toxic sludge was used as fertilizer. This sludge is a mix of human and industrial waste that is pulled from sewer systems by water treatment plants. Because of its high levels of plant nutrients, and the difficulty in disposing of it, this sludge is sold or given away to be used as fertilizer.  Maine is ahead of the rest of the country in terms of testing and mitigation efforts – they have been able to lower levels of PFAS in some dairy and livestock after replacing contaminated water and feed with clean sources. However,  despite the crisis unfolding in Maine, other states continue to allow and even encourage the use of sludge as fertilizer on farms, despite the risk of PFAS contamination. In the United States, farmers may also become disincentivizedfrom reporting high levels of PFAS if they face losing their livelihood upon reporting due to a lack of governmental support for those affected.  International and national PFAS policies and cooperation supporting affected farmers and communities are essential in combatting this contamination. 

On January 13, 2023, in an impressive example of international environmental cooperation and policy, authorities in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden submitted a proposed ban on PFAS to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). The proposal seeks to ban the use of all forms of PFAS, with exceptions for active ingredients in medicines, pesticides, and biocidal substances.  The proposal may provide for exemption periods for certain uses of PFAS without alternatives, however, if these uses are not replaced with alternatives after this period the sale of these products will be banned.  These exemption periods may vary from 18-months to 12 years. This proposal was submitted under the EU’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals Regulation (REACH) which includes a long restriction process including multiple evaluations from different committees. This process will take at least two years to complete. Meanwhile, on March 13, 2023, the Biden-Harris Administration proposed the first national drinking water standard regulating two PFAS as contaminants and four as a mixture. Although this proposal is far less comprehensive than the ECHA proposed ban, the EPA has stated that that this regulation could “prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses.” 

In recognizing the human right to a healthy environment, the United Nations General Assembly also recognized that sustainable development and environmental protection “contribute to and promote human well-being and the full enjoyment of all human rights, for present and future generations.”  Because of the durable nature of PFAS, they not only pose environmental and health threats to global populations presently, but also to future generations. Mitigation and prevention measures can help reduce this risk, and States should take such measures to protect, respect, and fulfill the right to a healthy environment for present and future generations alike.  

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