Activists, business leaders testify on plan to regulate ‘forever chemicals’

By: - June 9, 2023 7:02 am

PFAS are nicknamed "forever chemicals" because they do not break down naturally, so they've seeped into our water and soil. (Getty Images)

During a nearly two hour hearing Thursday on so-called forever chemicals, environmental activists applauded a bill that would regulate the substances while business leaders questioned how feasible regulations would be.

The measure would address perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl, called PFAS, that are used in products ranging from waterproof makeup and clothes to pizza boxes and nonstick cookware. Because of their prevalence, they are routinely found in drinking water, soil, our homes, our food, and our bodies, and lawmakers are looking at ways to prohibit the intentional addition of PFAS into new products made or sold in New Jersey. 

The discussion Thursday during the Senate Environment and Energy Committee brought testimony from national experts who appeared via video, local environmental activists, and business owners who would be affected by the legislation. The bill, introduced in October, has not gone up for a vote in either chamber of the Legislature. 

Anjuli Ramos-Busot of the New Jersey Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy organization, called the bill “incredibly necessary.” It would require transparency from manufacturers and provide state environmental officials with data they need, she said.

Rebecca Hilbert, senior policy manager with the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, touted the bill as a “crown jewel” by implementing a source program and research requirements. New Jersey has been a leader in safe water legislation, and now that other states are catching up with their own PFAS laws, the Garden State shouldn’t fall behind, she said. 

PFAS are man-made chemicals created in the 1930s for products that repel water, oil, and grease, and they are resistant to heat and chemical reactions. They can lead to health problems, including fertility issues, liver damage, thyroid disease, and cancer.

Under the bill, the state Department of Environmental Protection would regulate the addition of PFAS into everyday consumer products, and within the first year, the state would require reporting from businesses manufacturing or selling products containing PFAS, including the amount of the chemicals in their products. After two years, manufacturers who don’t provide notice to the state or pay a proposed $1,000 fee would be prohibited from selling or distributing products with PFAS. 

Also after two years, any carpets, cosmetics, fabrics, and food packaging with intentionally added PFAS would be barred from being sold in the Garden State. Items with trace amounts of PFAS would continue to be sold as long as they weren’t intentionally added. 

Sen. Linda Greenstein is a prime sponsor on the bill to regulate forever chemicals. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Lawmakers specified that the bill targets intentionally added PFAS because of how prevalent trace PFAS are in everyday products.

Two years after the bill’s effective date, cookware or other products that come into contact with food or beverage sold with forever chemicals would be required to include labels in English and Spanish stating they contain PFAS. Otherwise, the items would be banned from stores, and businesses would face fines of up to $10,000 for a first offense. 

The bill appropriates $5 million to the Department of Environmental Protection for PFAS-related research and to implement the reduction program.

Industry leaders argued the legislation is unreasonable. They expressed worry that hastily passing the measure would lead to future clean-up bills. Many asked for amendments to relax the strict standards on PFAS or to delay implementation.

Several witnesses pointed to a Maine law that aims to eliminate anything for sale with PFAS by 2030. Now, Maine lawmakers are delaying some of the law’s implementations and extending reporting deadlines. 

“Like the Maine law, (the) bill will be enormously difficult to implement and will impose unreasonable burdens on businesses and residents in New Jersey,” said Shawn Swearingen, director of the American Chemistry Council. 

He noted under the bill’s definitions, items integral to the medical industry could be affected, like divider curtains that create light protection for hospital patients and certain medical garments. 

Ray Cantor of the New Jersey Business Industry Association said although well-intended, the bill could hurt the manufacturing industry. He said since 1990, manufacturing jobs have been slashed in half because of “actions or laws or regulations that the Legislature and DEP and other agencies have passed.” 

“I won’t get into science or chemistry, but just because something’s in a product doesn’t mean it has a health impact,” he said.

Lawmakers did not say when they expect to hold a vote on the bill.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.

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