Maine Adopts 'World First' Ban on Forever Chemicals

Will the law be a model for policymakers?

Maine State Capital building in Augusta, Maine

Cappi Thompson / Getty Images

When fellow Treehugger Lloyd wrote about so-called "forever chemicals"—or perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—and their widespread use in architecture, several commenters zeroed in on how hard it is for individuals to avoid these substances. After all, they are everywhere: PFAS are a class of 9,000 compounds that are found in fracking wells, food packaging, cookware, cosmetics, dental floss, and even stain protectors. And, as the name suggests, they last a ridiculously long time—they are resistant to degrading and accumulate in the environment and humans.

Specifically, a commenter called ridahoan suggested only government-level interventions could really move the needle toward reform: 

“One way [that] this will change after the Feds determine PFAS as hazardous substances (and as a class of the thousands of PFAS out there rather than individually, I hope), is that landfills will then be required to separate these hazardous materials from the waste stream. That means much higher disposal costs when these are used.”

While the early days of the Biden administration did see a flurry of activity and proposed legislative changes on PFAS, we have yet to see the kind of blanket ban or reclassification of PFAS that many in the environmental community clearly hoped for. In fact, some—like Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter—have pointed to President Joe Biden’s record on fracking during the Obama administration as one reason why environmentalists are going to have to keep pushing: 

"The Biden administration has claimed to be concerned about PFAS contamination throughout the country. President Biden himself pledged during the campaign to halt new fracking on federal lands. Meanwhile, this administration is approving new fracking permits at a pace similar to Trump, with no letup in sight. The Obama-Biden administration approved the use of toxic PFAS chemicals for fracking a decade ago, and all these years later, Biden’s practices haven’t seemed to change a bit.”

Fortunately for activists, the U.S. federal government is not the only entity looking at regulating PFAS. The state of Maine just enacted a wide-ranging ban on the use of all PFAS by 2030, for all purposes, unless deemed "unavoidable." The ban, which took effect Thursday, is a "world first," according to Chemical & Engineering News.

In a press release about the victory Sarah Doll, national director at Safer States—a nationwide network of diverse environmental health coalitions and organizations—the success of the Maine bill could have huge implications for manufacturers moving forward: “This precedent setting policy in Maine is at the forefront of expanding state efforts to protect their citizens from toxic chemicals and puts industry on notice that now is the time to move to safer alternatives.”

Of course, Maine is a small state, so a ban there does not automatically mean victory elsewhere. (Vermont rolled out a similar PFAS law that went into effect July 1, restricting the use, sale, and manufacturing of it. That said, the restrictions are still a few years out.)

However, as is often the case with such legal fights, we can expect to see similar action elsewhere. Bans on internal combustion engines, for example—even when they are a decade or more away—influence what investors and manufacturers choose to do today, and a ban on PFAS—however regional—will inevitably do the same. 

With European countries also looking seriously at restrictions on the use of PFAS, we can expect to hear a lot more on this critically important topic. Few of us can eliminate these "forever chemicals" from our homes and communities overnight, but we can continue to ask questions, make phone calls, sign petitions and support the pressure groups that are pushing for manufacturer accountability and robust legislative oversight.