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New state law bans PFAs in menstrual products, artificial turf, cookware and more

A photo of three sanitary pads, colored white and yellow, next to two tampons in purple plastic applicators.
triocean/Getty Images
Menstrual products are among the items targeted by a new state law that bans PFAS in personal care products and a host of consumer goods.

From to-go boxes to makeup and all the way to rain jackets, PFAS are in just about everything.

They’re known as forever chemicals, and they take a very long time to break down. Extended exposure to PFAS has been linked to negative health effects.

In May, Gov. Phil Scott signed a new law that bans PFAS in cosmetics, feminine hygiene products and athletic turf. It also bans PFAS in cookware, textiles and most products for kids.

Other states have taken similar steps to pass bills that ban PFAs, but they haven’t been as strict. The bill also contains a first-in-the-nation ban on phthalates, a type of chemical used in food packaging and production materials that can leach into food and drinks.

Climate and environment reporter Abagael Giles joins Vermont Edition to discuss the new law and the impact it will have on you. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Mikaela Lefrak: All right, let's start broad here, as we need to with a topic like this one. What are PFAS? And broadly, what are they in?

Abagael Giles: It's a great question. PFAS are these tiny, manufactured chemicals. They've been around for decades now. And they're hugely useful at helping to make manufactured goods resistant to water, to grease, to stains. They also are used to extend the longevity of products.

So they're used in everything from, like, rugs to raincoats — as you said earlier, you know: pretty much anything that you've used that has waterproofing in it.

And they're also in makeup, and they're certainly in things that play a role in absorbency. So hence, you know, menstrual products and diapers and what have you.

They're pretty insidious. There's been a long-standing concern about the impacts they have on human health.

And essentially, what we've really seen in the last couple of years is the federal government start to really get behind this and say, "You know, virtually no level of exposure to these chemicals is safe for humans in drinking water," which I think has really triggered new focus on ways to get them out of our manufacturing stream.

They stick around for a long time, they're very difficult to destroy, and they do accumulate in the human body. So it's definitely pretty concerning.

Mikaela Lefrak: So it sounds like they have a lot of uses, like the waterproofing that you brought up, but they also stick around for a long time. They can hurt our bodies, and I assume the environment as well.

Abagael Giles: Yeah, absolutely.

So a lot of states are trying to do some pretty labor-intensive and funding-intensive research to better understand the ways in which these chemicals are affecting the natural world, as well.

Vermont is actually in the process of looking at a ... surface water standard for PFAS. So essentially, this would be sort of, you know, something we could use to evaluate whether a body of water is contaminated or sort of undermined because there's too much PFAS there.

But yes, essentially, one of the bigger concerns about these chemicals in Vermont is how they get into our drinking water.

We have one open landfill in the state — it's in the Northeast Kingdom — and all of our consumer goods go there when we're done with them. We know from testing that there are some high levels of PFAS in the leachate from the landfill —

Mikaela Lefrak: And this is the Coventry landfill that's run by Casella?

Abagael Giles: Exactly, yeah. And Casella is working with the state on a pilot project to look at ways to sort of extract PFAS from that leachate.

But absent that, it really goes straight into our municipal wastewater system, which isn't equipped right now to remove PFAS. So essentially, these chemicals are flowing freely into the Winooski River, into Lake Champlain.

More from Vermont Public: Locals skeptical of project to remove PFAS from leachate in Coventry

They also get into our waterways through us, through our homes, through the things that we flush away in our houses.

So they're very insidious. And as they are emerging as a greater concern environmentally, as this sort of expensive problem, I think you're seeing state lawmakers here say, "Let's see if we can move upstream and start to stem the flow of these chemicals into Vermont."

Mikaela Lefrak: OK, so what exactly is now banned in Vermont? What can't you sell?

Abagael Giles: Yeah, so one important piece of this legislation is that much of what is banned kind of goes into effect in 2026. So there's a little time for state government to kind of figure out how they're going to implement this. And also for manufacturers to be reached out to, to be notified so that they can kind of get their ducks in a row.

But essentially, Mikaela, the big ones here are, you know: banning PFAS in menstrual products and cosmetics. The bill also bans formaldehyde, phthalates and about 13 other chemicals.

Mikaela Lefrak: Formaldehyde? I didn’t know to even think that was in some of these products.

Abagael Giles: I know! It is sort of horrifying when you think about it.

But it also bans PFAS in incontinence products and cookware, in textiles and clothing, in diapers and kids’ products, and ultimately, down the line, in artificial turf, as well.

In terms of what makes this law particularly notable at the national level, this is — as far as our reporting has found — the first-in-the-nation ban on phthalates, mercury and formaldehyde in menstrual products.

And it's also the first-in-the-nation ban on PFAS in incontinence products.

So this is, at least, you know, according to many advocates, one of the most comprehensive laws protecting period and personal care products in the U.S. right now.

Mikaela Lefrak: OK, so eventually, in 2026, people in Vermont will not be able to buy products that include all of these chemicals that you just mentioned. But so much of our commerce takes place online now. Will you still be able to, say, order them from Amazon?

Abagael Giles: That's a great question, Mikaela.

You know, something that's really interesting about this law and the way it works: It was structured such that enforcement is through the Consumer Protection Act, which is a tool that is used in our legal system frequently to try to protect the public from chemical contaminants, you know, in the environment, and in goods.

And essentially, where this law is a little bit different from some other policies we've seen in this arena, is that it really targets the manufacturers and not retailers.

So, for example, a pharmacy in Vermont wouldn't be the one who's responsible for sort of enforcing this. It's really about regulating manufacturers and saying, "You can't sell products that have intentionally added PFAS in them in Vermont."

There are kind of a couple of mechanisms by which the Attorney General's office can enforce that.

And one of them is actually by going to companies and requiring that they disclose what's in their products. So we can walk through an example of what that would look like if that is helpful.

Mikaela Lefrak: Let's do it. 

Abagael Giles: Yeah, so I don't know if this jumped to the top of your mind, but it did to mine: waterproof mascara.

Mikaela Lefrak: Great, great product, we love it.

Abagael Giles: We love it!

You know, a lot of them probably do have PFAS in them. You know, it's waterproofing.

So say there's a product that the Attorney General's office discovers. You know, maybe another state has tested it, maybe some information has arisen, or there has been a complaint that this product may exceed Vermont standards for PFAS. They can send a letter to the manufacturer — say, maybe it's Maybelline or whoever that may be — and essentially say, "We are concerned that your product violates this law. Can you tell us more about what's in it? Show us the evidence, the testing and what have you."

The Attorney General's office could potentially verify that testing. There's still some sort of nitty gritty to be worked out about how that would work.

And essentially, if it's found that there's PFAS in that product, they can do a number of things:

They can say, "You're no longer allowed to sell your product in Vermont until you can demonstrate that you have an alternative that doesn't violate this law."

They can issue fines. There are all sorts of penalties that can essentially be applied.

Mikaela Lefrak: OK, so lots to still figure out here. Have you heard anything from industry or business owners about this ban? Any positives or negatives coming out of that space?

Abagael Giles: You know, it's really interesting, Mikaela. This was a policy that moved through the Legislature with unanimous support, which is sort of rare for an environmental bill in Vermont, even.

And one thing that was fascinating during the process: I think lawmakers spent a lot of time listening to industry and trying to get a sense for what timelines would be feasible for them.

So that's where these dates have been kind of tweaked a lot and moved around.

But you know, it was very interesting hearing testimony, particularly from folks in the outdoor industry, which is, of course, a big sector of our economy in Vermont.

More from Vermont Public: EPA designates two PFAS as hazardous substances through Superfund program

A lot of national brands that make raincoats and ski jackets are already starting to try to phase out PFAS from their products.

And so, you know, this bill was at least intended to try to sort of honor what manufacturers can do on a timeline where they might be able to actually implement it.

So broadly, I think there was support. I think, of course, there's some concern, but, you know, that was kind of what we heard, at least during the session.

Mikaela Lefrak: There are also, as you mentioned earlier, a number of new restrictions on PFAS at the federal level. I believe the last time you came on Vermont Edition, actually, it was right after the Environmental Protection Agency had issued these big changes that a lot of folks across the country were sort of waiting for, to see what was going to happen at the federal level. 

You're actively doing reporting on the impact of those policy changes on Vermont. What kinds of questions are you looking into?

Abagael Giles: Yeah, Mikaela, I think whenever there's a big policy change at the federal level, there's always this sort of scramble as a reporter to try to say, like, "What does this mean for Vermont?"

And, you know, truth be told, I think regulators are still trying to sort a lot of that out as well.

You know, PFAS, were really not being regulated by the federal government at all for a long time.

More from Vermont Public: For the first time, the EPA is regulating PFAS in drinking water. Here's what that means for Vermont

And Vermont was one of the states that kind of got out ahead and enforced its own regulations on these chemicals. I think now the federal government — the EPA — has sort of created its own standards that are a little bit stricter in some cases than Vermont's regulations right now. And additionally, you know, these chemicals, two of them are listed under the federal Superfund program, which has all sorts of ramifications for communities that may have, you know, a lot of contamination.

I think what we're seeing here is Vermont lawmakers really saying, this is about to be a very expensive proposition for us, cleaning up PFAS. And from the sort of public interest perspective, maybe it makes sense to now really double down on this idea of getting these chemicals out of our waste stream.

Broadcast live on Monday, June 10, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments, or tips? Send us a message or check us out on Instagram.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.