There’s a sea change coming for “forever chemicals.” Government regulatory agencies and companies are taking strides to limit per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water and products, a class of chemicals commonly used for their nonstick and water-repellent properties. Environmental groups have pushed companies like REI to ban the thousands of man-made chemicals which comprise PFAS, and the outdoor retailer pledged to require all of its clothing and cookware suppliers to ban the chemicals by 2024.
Where do consumer awareness and concern for PFAS stand right now, as the potential for more comprehensive regulation looms?
Studies on exposure to PFAS – which don’t break down naturally and stay in the body – are showing they pose a threat to human health, increasing the risk of certain diseases and interfering with child development. But thus far, the issue hasn’t captured a high level of salience with most Americans. CivicScience data find that just 17% of U.S. adults say they’re ‘very familiar’ with PFAS, while a total of 54% have at least some level of familiarity with them. However, nearly half of U.S. adults – 46% – claim they are ‘not at all familiar’ with forever chemicals.
That said, concern levels remain higher than Americans’ overall understanding of PFAS. Nearly two-thirds report they are at least ‘somewhat concerned’ about the presence of PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ in common products – with 31% expressing the highest level of concern. While government regulation of PFAS might polarize the issue further across partisan lines, a majority of Republicans (59%) and Democrats (71%) are both at least ‘somewhat concerned’ about them – but Democrats are more likely to be ‘very concerned’ (38% compared to 25%).
Like REI, some companies have already taken matters into their own hands ahead of comprehensive regulations by banning or phasing out PFAS from products they manufacture (such as 3M) or sell. And according to CivicScience data, it’s a popular move. Nearly half of U.S. adults are ‘just as likely’ to shop at companies or retailers that ban PFAS – and those who’d be ‘more likely’ outpace those who’d be ‘less likely’ to shop there by more than 2-to-1 (37% to 16%, respectively).
Much like with concern levels, a person’s political party is just a slight indicator of who would be less likely to shop at a retailer that bans PFAS (Republicans narrowly outpace Democrats 17% to 12%). But registered Democrats are drastically more likely to be more inclined to shop at these stores than Republicans (51% compared to 25%). At press time, the move isn’t likely to alienate the vast majority of shoppers.
While there are thousands of chemicals that comprise PFAS, the EPA took aim at six specific chemicals that have surfaced in American drinking water. It’s the agency’s first such move, and sets new standards for local water systems to monitor and treat as needed – and individuals may purchase specialized filters if they want to attack PFAS before the policy’s full implementation.
As expected, there’s a strong correlation between concern for forever chemicals and drinking filtered water. Americans who typically drink filtered water are by far the most likely to claim they’re ‘very concerned’ about PFAS (39%) or express any level of concern (72%) – both of which outpace the general public. Conversely, bottled water drinkers and those who drink unfiltered tap water or well water are the least likely to express a high level of concern (25%).
It’s still early in the life cycle of changes to PFAS regulation – and the public debates that may soon follow – but for now, familiarity with forever chemicals isn’t as high as Americans’ concern, and banning them from products looks to be a popular move for retailers. CivicScience will continue tracking the impacts of PFAS on consumers and businesses. But if you’re interested in more insights surrounding the subject, let’s chat.