PFAS Bill Has Majority Support, But Uncertain Outlook


Two powerful lawmakers are trying to push a widely supported bill to ban toxic "forever chemicals" over the finish line before the looming end of session, but neither said Tuesday that the issue will be a priority for their branch.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Kate Hogan and Senate Assistant Majority Whip Julian Cyr filed the bill, which has gotten two favorable committee recommendations and is co-sponsored by 101 lawmakers, but now sits in the House Ways and Means Committee with only five weeks left for legislators to conclude their formal business this session.

The bill aims to clean up contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a class of man-made chemicals that do not break down entirely in the environment, and exposure to their long-lasting presence has been linked to serious and negative health impacts like thyroid disease and kidney cancer. PFAS chemicals are all around us; they are used in non-stick cookware, food packaging, children's products, carpets, leather goods, ski wax, firefighting foams and more, and they have leached into drinking water supplies and the soil.

Serious levels of PFAS contamination have been found in more than 171 public drinking water systems in at least 96 Massachusetts communities -- up from 126 water systems in 86 communities six months ago.

Westfield was one of the first cities in Massachusetts to find high levels of PFAS in both public and private wells, in 2013.

Kristen Mello, a Westfield resident, has suffered from severe pneumonia for years, which she links to PFAS exposure, as a growing body of evidence shows the chemicals can affect the immune system by suppressing antibodies needed to fight infectious diseases.

"I can't safely go out with friends or meet at restaurants. I can't safely attend conferences, social functions, family events, or funerals without taking extra precautions, and even then I still can't have full engagement," Mello said. "Over 99 percent of the population has PFAS in their blood ... The difference between you and me is that I know more about my PFAS exposure than you do."

The Hogan/Cyr bill aims to phase out the use of PFAS in products including food packaging, children's products, firefighter protective gear and personal care items.

The legislation is based heavily on a report from the PFAS Interagency Task Force, co-chaired by Hogan and Cyr, released in 2022, with recommendations to address the chemical's proliferation, including an entire section about fire departments and firefighters.

The report said that only firefighting gear made with PFAS is able to meet current fire safety standards, but the chemicals likely contribute to the higher rates of cancer diagnosis and cancer-related deaths that firefighters experience compared to the general population.

Richard MacKinnon, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, said at a legislative briefing Tuesday that more young firefighters are being diagnosed with and dying from cancer.

"We are sick of going to funerals for firefighters that died of occupational cancer," he said. "Just this past Saturday, we buried a 32-year-old firefighter with six years on the job of occupational cancer ... I urge the Legislature, pass this legislation by July 31, by the end of formal sessions."

Twelve other states have either banned PFAS or required products containing the chemical to be labeled, including other New England states of Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Maine, MacKinnon said.

"I feel like these companies have traded years off firefighters' lives for their profits," said Jason Burns of the Fall River Fire Department.

The bill also restricts industry discharges of PFAS and the spread of sludge containing the chemical on farmland, and it sets up a fund to help communities test and treat PFAS contamination in drinking water, soil and groundwater.

Eric Ryder, director of public works for the town of Hudson, said at Tuesday's briefing that the town had to invest in a $15 million water cleaning system when dangerous levels of PFAS were found in the town's wells.

"We had to put out a notification and people were obviously concerned. They didn't want to drink the water, they didn't want their young children in the water," Ryder said. "We sprung into action, we started to supply drinkable bottled water to the residents."

PFAS contamination has become an increasingly urgent issue on Beacon Hill as the ubiquity of the chemicals and their negative health consequences have become better known.

When the task force chaired by Cyr and Hogan released its report in 2022, the chairs said they had their eyes on a large PFAS package for the 2023-2024 legislative session.

And while the report did not carry a price tag for implementing its recommendations, Cyr and Hogan acknowledged it will be a costly endeavor and said they will be looking to draw funding from a variety of sources, including remaining American Rescue Plan Act money and dollars approved in the recent federal infrastructure law.

"The price tag here overall is substantial, it's very substantial," Cyr said in April 2022. "Bolstering resources within the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Public Health will be an important first step. In addition to state action and resources, we are hoping to receive some substantial support from the feds as well on this. We've already been investing quite a bit of money, but there is going to be quite a bit much more money that's going to be needed to really mitigate and address PFAS contamination."

The bill has 26 co-sponsors in the Senate and 84 in the House -- majorities of each branch.

Asked Tuesday if she's hopeful about the bill's chance to pass this session, Hogan replied in a statement, "We're hoping this bill passes this session. We've gathered a lot of support from legislators whose communities have been affected by PFAS. You heard today about the urgency for passing this legislation now and the reality that we fall behind other states if we fail to do so. However, we are aware that there are many priorities of importance as we come to the end of the 193rd legislative session."

Cyr pointed out in his opening statements at the briefing that there are only five weeks left in the session, adding that he was "certainly buoyed" by the 100-plus legislative aides who attended the event.

"The ubiquity of PFAS in our environment and the ubiquity of these chemicals in our consumer products means that we must act now, because what we do today has significant effects on our environment and on our health," Cyr said.

Gov. Maura Healey has also said reining in the impact of PFAS chemicals is a priority for her administration.

As attorney general in May 2022, Healey filed a lawsuit, which was combined in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina with other similar suits, against manufacturers like 3M, Dupont and Tyco that manufacture PFAS chemicals contained in firefighting foam. The suit alleged 13 manufacturers "deceptively" advertised products containing PFAS as safe despite knowing the chemicals were highly toxic and dangerous to the environment.