Activist Strategies for Shaping the Re-Discovery and Regulation of the PFAS Class of Toxic Substances

Authors: Jennifer Liss Ohayon*, Northeastern University/Silent Spring Institute, Alissa Corder, Whitman College, Phil Brown , Northeastern University , Lauren Richter , Northeastern University , Clare Malone, Northeastern , Chelsea Canedy , Northeastern , Matthew Kim, Northeastern , Yvette Niwa, Northeastern University, Nicholas Chaves, Northeastern University
Topics: Environment, Hazards, Risks, and Disasters, Qualitative Research
Keywords: Toxics, environmental health, social movements, environmental policy, environmental sociology, endocrine disrupting compounds
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/11/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM
Room: Napoleon D1, Sheraton 3rd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs), a large group of manufactured compounds widely used to make everyday products more resistant to stains, grease, and water, and present in firefighting foams, have recently emerged as a major target for community activism, retailer and wholesaler reformulation, and regulatory response as a result of their serious health effects, persistence, and bioaccumulation. While industry was aware of some of the dangers of PFASs in the 1970s, significant scientific and public attention was not directed towards this class of chemicals until decades later, following the discovery of several contaminated communities. Focusing on cases on the U.S. East Coast, we discuss how affected residents, regional and national environmental groups, and government officials have mobilized. While some cases follow the classic paradigm of toxic discovery, in which residents alert public officials of health hazards who often deny the severity of contamination, in other instances government employees have been quick to respond, sometimes in the absence of significant community pressure. This is a unique case of an increasingly coordinated national alliance of activists focused on a single class of chemicals, with important liaison and education work conducted by the more well-organized groups. We discuss the successes and limitations of common strategies to compel governments and industries to respond to affected communities’ concerns and/or restrict the use of PFASs in production and application. We also present an interactive map we created that tracks PFAS water contamination across the country based on rapidly unfolding lay discoveries and EPA data.

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