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Toxic PFAS chemicals will be added to Mass.' official list of hazardous substances

In this June 17, 2019 photo in Washington, a label states that these pans do not contain PFAS. (Ellen Knickmeyer/AP)
In this June 17, 2019 photo in Washington, a label states that these pans do not contain PFAS. (Ellen Knickmeyer/AP)

The widespread and pervasive chemicals known as PFAS will be added to the state's list of "Toxic or Hazardous Substances" in December, according to officials at the quasi-governmental Toxics Use Reduction Institute.

The decision includes nearly the entire class of PFAS chemicals — of which there are thousands — rather than just the handful identified as most concerning for public health.

The amendment to the state's Toxics Use Reduction Act (TURA) Program does not ban the use of PFAS chemicals outright. (Some states, like California, Maine and Washington have restricted the use of PFAS in consumer products.) Rather, Massachusetts manufacturing facilities covered under the program must start tracking their use of PFAS chemicals in 2022.

If a facility uses large amounts of PFAS — 10,000 or 25,000 pounds per year, depending on how they are used — its operators will need to report their total PFAS use annually to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and undergo toxics use reduction planning every two years.

Those facilities also will pay an annual fee to the state, which can vary from "a few thousand dollars up to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the company" and the number of chemicals used, according to Elizabeth Harriman, deputy director of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute, which is based at at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

"The TURA program is based on prevention and reducing toxics at the source," said Karen Angelo, a spokesperson for the Toxics Use Reduction Institute. "Unfortunately cities and towns with PFAS now have to deal with the cleanup and the treatment. So this is getting ahead of that. It's a challenge, but it's something that that needs to be done."

PFAS chemicals have been used in consumer products, food packaging and manufacturing for decades. Studies have linked PFAS exposure to elevated cholesterol, thyroid disease, liver and kidney damage, effects on fertility and low birth weight. Because they linger in the human body and the environment for a long time, they're often called “forever chemicals.”

At a public hearing on the proposed amendment in October, environmental advocates generally supported it or called for stricter regulation. Opponents, including representatives from the American Chemistry Council — an industry group for chemical companies — criticized the proposal as too broad and "not scientifically sound."

A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Chemistry and Technology Alliance, another trade organization, said at the meeting that the group was "deeply concerned about the unintended consequences of these amendments," noting that "many companies are unaware that any of the thousands of PFAS chemicals defined in the proposed amendments are present in their products and processes, because suppliers don't list them as PFAS."

Harriman, with the Toxics Use Reduction Institute, agrees, but says the new amendment will force facilities to demand that information from suppliers.

"This law will help them understand what it is they're using, what they're emitting, and the fact that — yes — if they're emitting PFAS to the environment, it's always going to be there and it is going to contaminate things," she said.

The move reflects growing scrutiny of the chemicals in Massachusetts; the state began regulating PFAS levels in drinking water in 2020.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the entire class of PFAS chemicals would be added to the list. Certain ultra-short-chain PFAS compounds will not be included. The story has been updated. WBUR regrets the error.

Related:

Barbara Moran Twitter Correspondent, Environment
Barbara Moran is the senior producing editor for WBUR’s environmental vertical.

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