A group of chemicals found in nonstick cookware and firefighting foam could soon be banned from some products in Hawaii as a growing body of research shows they’re polluting the environment and suspected of causing health problems, including cancer. 

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been used for decades in a wide variety of products – including clothing, furniture and food packaging – to make them fire-retardant, stain-resistant and water-repellent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They’re also an ingredient in firefighting foam that has been used by fire departments, airports and the military.

But what makes them useful in these products is also what makes them problematic for the environment and health: They’re “forever chemicals” that don’t break down in the environment. Instead, they bioaccumulate in fish and wildlife, moving up the food chain, according to the CDC. 

Fire extinguisher.
PFAS chemicals are found in firefighting foam. A Hawaii bill would ban their use for training and testing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

These chemicals are ubiquitous. Last year, trace levels of PFAS were detected in Honolulu’s drinking water, according to the Department of Health. And most Americans have PFAS in their blood, the CDC says

Hawaii Rep. Nicole Lowen, who chairs the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, said it’s time to take action. 

“We need to stop letting these chemicals continue to accumulate in the environment and in our bodies and stop using them,” the Kailua-Kona area representative said. 

People become exposed to these chemicals by consuming PFAS-contaminated water or food or by using products made from the chemicals, the CDC says. Animal studies show that high levels of PFAS can impede growth and development and can negatively impact reproduction, thyroid function, the immune system and the liver. 

Rep Nicole Lowen in joint senate/house finance final budget announcement.
Rep. Nicole Lowen sponsored legislation to ban PFAS in certain consumer products. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Scientists are still learning about these chemicals, including their impacts on health. But the Environmental Protection Agency said last year that the latest research suggests two types of PFAS – PFOA and PFOS – are more toxic than officials previously thought, and that PFOA is a likely carcinogen.

One study found that PFAS were associated with lower vaccine efficacy in children. 

Hawaii House Bill 1644 would prohibit the manufacture and sale of certain items that contain PFAS: wraps and liners, plates, food boats and pizza boxes.

Lowen said her bill is specifically crafted to ban PFAS in products that already have established alternatives. 

Under HB 1644, the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams would also be prohibited for testing and training purposes.

The bill, which would take effect in 2024, already has passed both chambers of the Hawaii Legislature. Its next stop is the conference committee. 

The legislation has support from the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association and environmental nonprofits Surfrider Foundation, Climate Protectors Hawaii, Zero Waste Hawaii Island and Recycle Hawaii.

“To say that the data is alarming and shocking is a monumental understatement,” president of Recycle Hawaii Christopher Dean said in written testimony. 

“Every living organism on Earth has been poisoned by these chemicals. Think about that. They’re on the top of Everest. They’re at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. They’re in the Arctic, the Congo, the Sahara, everywhere.” 

‘We Need Regulation’

Hawaii is actively investigating the prevalence of PFAS throughout the islands, including potential sources and exposure pathways, state toxicologist Diana Felton said in an interview. 

“They’re considered ‘contaminants of emerging concern,’” Felton said. 

The good news is that Hawaii doesn’t have any PFAS manufacturing plants, which tend to be big sources of this kind of pollution in other states, Felton said. 

The state is instead focused on other areas where PFAS may be concentrated, including military bases, airports and landfills, she said. PFAS also can be found in wastewater because they’re not removed in standard filtration systems, according to Felton. 

“We think it’s important to try to understand which of these chemicals are most prevalent here in Hawaii so we can focus the risk assessment,” Felton said. 

New Jersey PFAS chemical infographic

A 2021 study examined the PFAS levels in the muscles of fish caught around Oahu. PFOS was detected in fish caught in Ahuimanu and Pearl Harbor, although the levels were considered relatively low. 

Other studies are ongoing. Felton said the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted work at federal labs, so water sample results from 2020 are held up. And researchers are still evaluating samples taken from fish purchased at the grocery store. So far, she said the preliminary results do not appear to be alarming. 

“We wanted to see what kind of exposure it might be for people who eat a poke bowl every other day,” she said. “Initially, it looks like the locally caught, frequently consumed fish like the ahi, marlin and ono are not particularly concerning.” 

In addition, Felton’s office is examining leachate from wastewater treatment plants and landfills for PFAS and is planning a study of the PFAS in food packaging. 

One unfortunate complication with Oahu’s ban on plastic food packaging, Felton said, is that many nonplastic, “compostable” alternatives contain PFAS. Felton is hoping to study the extent to which PFAS are being transferred from those containers to compost and then to crops. 

Pat Elder, a Maryland-based environmental advocate and anti-war activist, has ordered his own PFAS testing on Oahu as part of an informal study.

Elder and his daughter, who lives on Oahu, found PFAS detected in samples taken from the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant, in the Halawa Stream and in a stream at Keehi Lagoon Park. 

The detections at each location were in the parts per trillion, which Felton said represent a fraction of a single drop within an Olympic swimming pool. But Elder said it only takes a small amount of PFAS to bioaccumulate in the environment, having a magnifying effect each time it moves up the food chain.

“We need regulation to protect public health,” Elder said. 

A National Trend

The federal government is also working to rein in PFAS. The EPA released a roadmap last year to tackle the issue. The plan includes timelines to set enforceable drinking water limits, an effort to designate PFAS as a “hazardous substance,” and increased monitoring, data collection and research.  

Private companies also are taking it upon themselves to use PFAS alternatives. 

The corporate ownership of Chick-fil-A and Burger King announced last month that they would work to eliminate the use of PFAS in their food packaging. Starbucks also recently pledged to eliminate PFAS from all its U.S. packaging by the end of this year, and plans to phase it out globally in 2023. Those companies follow similar promises from Amazon, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Home Depot, Bloomberg Law reported.

Visitors enjoy coffee at Starbucks. Tourism. 11 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Companies like Starbucks have pledged to eliminate PFAS from their packaging. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

Hawaii’s bill is part of a trend of legislators taking aim at PFAS across the nation, according to Bloomberg. At least nine other states are considering similar legislation this year.

Not everyone is on board with Hawaii’s proposed ban. 

The president of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii said in written testimony that banning PFAS would put an additional burden on businesses that are already struggling. 

“Bans are not the simple answer, especially in a time when businesses continue to face major supply disruptions, shipping delays, increase in pricing and other operational hurdles,” Tina Yamaki wrote last month.

“Businesses are responding to the wants of the customers that patronize their establishments all while operating on a very thin profit margin,” Yamaki said.

A new advocacy group called the Chamber of Sustainable Commerce countered that regardless of a pandemic, “risking the long-term health of our customers to save a few pennies is not a good business calculation.” 

“If we are incapable of operating our businesses without hurting our customers, then we should question our motivations for staying in business,” the group said in written testimony. 

The Hawaii Restaurant Association supports the intent of Lowen’s bill but asked for more time – until 2026 – to find alternatives to existing packaging. 

For Lowen, the PFAS legislation is just the beginning of a larger effort to tackle environmental contaminants that threaten the environment and public health. 

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” Lowen said. “There is a lot of work to be done.” 

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