PFAS Concerns – Real Hazard or Just Outrage?

Concern about the impacts of Poly- and Perflouroalkyl Substances is extensive and growing.  Without seeking to downplay the potential risks from PFAS exposure, I do think that the way we are addressing PFAS demonstrates everything that’s wrong about how we talk about, assess, and respond to environmental risk in the United States.

Exhibit 1 for my view is Senator John Barrasso, the Republican chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.  According to Bloomberg(subscription required), Barrasso criticized EPA’s plan for addressing PFAS as lacking teeth.  He said that EPA must take “decisive action” with respect to PFAS.  This is the same Senator John Barrasso who has a lifetime scorecard of 8% and a 2017 scorecard of 0% from the League of Conservation Voters.  I’m quite sure that it wouldn’t take me more than 30 minutes to identify at least 10 EPA programs that Senator Barrasso has opposed that are much more important to reducing risks to human health and the environment than anything EPA might do in regard to PFAS.

So, why the fuss about PFAS?

For that, I refer you to the work of Peter Sandman, a leading expert on risk communication.  As Sandman has made clear, public concern about environmental risks is driven not just by the hazard posed by any situation, but also by the level of outrage that the hazard has caused among the public.

Superfund sites just generate more outrage per unit of risk than other environmental risks.  Does anyone doubt that Senator Barrasso must have gotten more constituent calls and emails about PFAS than about air pollution or climate change?

Of course, that Senator Barrasso is from Wyoming, where there are significant fossil fuel interests and no manufacturers of PFAS among his constituents, might also have something to do with the seeming inconsistency between his lifetime LCV rating and his critique of EPA as being too soft on PFAS.

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