Maryland must move swiftly to regulate harmful ‘forever chemicals’ | COMMENTARY

In this June 7, 2018, file photo, PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, foam gathers at the the Van Etten Creek dam in Oscoda Township, Michigan near Wurtsmith Air Force Base. Groundwater contaminated with firefighting foam containing PFAS has become a volatile issue for state and federal authorities in recent years. (Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP)

As horrible as it was to lay to rest the three Baltimore firefighters who died fighting a fire in a vacant city rowhouse that collapsed on them last month, it should be noted that the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths of such first responders isn’t related to burns or asphyxiation or falling debris. It’s from cancer. Firefighters are routinely exposed to a host of toxic substances that can end their lives prematurely. One of the most worrisome is a class of human-made compounds called PFAS, for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which have been linked to various forms of cancer and are present in some forms of firefighting foam. These “forever chemicals,” so-called because they don’t break down in the environment, but rather build up, are quite pervasive and can impact all of us. They can be found in everything from certain nonstick pans to stain-resistant carpeting. The Maryland Department of the Environment have found traces of PFAS in 75% of tested community drinking water samples.

The very idea that firefighters would be carrying around these chemicals is particularly galling given all the other risks first-responders must endure and because alternative fire suppressants are available. State lawmakers in Annapolis surely understand this. They approved a ban on using firefighting foam with PFAS during training exercises two years ago. And at least six states, including California, New York and Vermont, have already moved away from its use. The U.S. military also has been directed by Congress to stop using it by 2024.


That’s why this is absolutely the time for members of the Maryland General Assembly — beginning this week with the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee — to approve the George “Walter” Taylor Act (House Bill 275/Senate Bill 273), which would expand the prohibition on the sale, distribution and manufacture of PFAS to cover firefighting foam, carpet and food packaging where it has been used deliberately beginning next year. The legislation is named after a longtime Southern Maryland firefighter who died in 2020 at age 46 from metastatic neuroendocrine cancer. PFAS are known to disrupt the human body’s hormone systems.

Environmental and health advocates along with firefighters have enthusiastically supported the legislation. At a House hearing last week, opponents included makers of paper products that would be banned, Cecil County’s W.L. Gore & Associates (which uses the chemicals in their products but would not be directly regulated by the bill), and representatives of the chemical industry. Their chief complaint is that the measure does not distinguish among the thousands of types of PFAS and, to use an industry term, ought to be “refined.”


But such complaints ignore several important points. First, they generally fail to acknowledge the health threat posed by doing nothing. Second, the legislation already restricts the ban by product (foam, carpeting and food packaging only). And third, many other states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are already taking similar actions. One could perhaps argue that Maryland might sit back and wait to see how others choose to regulate PFAS and then match their actions, but try telling that to the Taylor family. There should be a sense of urgency here. Whatever burden dealing with leftover PFAS-laden foam might cause to fire departments, for example (given that under the bill, they could neither incinerate nor bury their inventory in landfills but would have to keep it in safe storage until a safe disposal practice is found), that’s a reasonable price to protect public health.

Indeed, it’s disappointing that the Maryland Department of the Environment has not endorsed this worthy legislation. Officially, the state agency is neutral, but in written testimony submitted Feb. 9 to the House Health and Government Operations Committee by Tyler Abbott, MDE’s chief of staff, the measure is viewed as legislative mandate that would hamper “efficiency” and force the agency to “divert resources away from current core competencies and likely disrupt customer service and/or diminish services.”

This wouldn’t be the first time the Hogan administration was found wanting in the environmental vigilance arena. Just last month, lawmakers pressed MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles on his agency’s pattern of lax enforcement on drinking water safety, sewage spills and poultry farm inspections and he said staffing shortages, caused in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, played a role. But it’s one thing to talk the talk, Maryland needs to walk the walk as well, and that means talking stronger, swifter action on PFAS than the state has so far been willing to assert.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom