The White House’s ban on federal purchasing of PFAS-containing products will focus on cookware, carpets and couches, according to the Office of Management and Budget’s memo implementing President Biden’s sustainability executive order.
At least one environmental group opposed to broad uses of per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) said it found the administration’s move encouraging. Some PFAS have been linked to cancer, liver damage, and other health effects.
The Wednesday order and a related federal sustainability plan call for the government to reach net-zero emissions to address climate change by 2050 and for federal agencies to prioritize sustainable procurement. The OMB memo says that means avoiding purchasing items that contain PFAS.
The memo says “agencies should prioritize substitutes” for PFAS-containing products and to the “maximum extent practicable” avoid buying products containing a small subset of those substances outlined in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2021.
The act bars the Defense Department from buying cookware and stain-resistant upholstered furniture and carpets containing perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) or perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) beginning in April 2023.
Open to Interpretation
John Reeder, vice president of federal affairs for the Environmental Working Group, which advocates for strict PFAS regulation, said Biden’s order can be interpreted to apply to more than just carpets, upholstery and cookware.
“We read these as two distinct requirements that are in that memo to the agencies,” Reeder said. “It says avoid those listed in the NDAA versus prioritize substitutes for the broader class for PFAS. But working together, we think it’s a significant broadening of the requirement for federal agencies.”
The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday, but said in September that it doesn’t support expanding the Defense Department’s prohibition on PFAS-containing product procurement. It wouldn’t be feasible for Defense to test an expanded list of products for PFAS and some may not have PFAS-free alternatives, the White House said.
The executive order doesn’t require agencies to test for PFAS in products, Environmental Working Group senior vice president of government affairs Scott Faber said. Instead, it asks them to prioritize contracts with vendors if they can certify their products are PFAS-free.
“It could not be clearer that the agencies are going to have to avoid PFAS or avoid products made with PFAS when they are making purchases,” Faber said.
The executive order follows a similar order from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) limiting the procurement of PFAS-containing materials in the state, said Ally Cunningham, a partner at Lathrop GPM LLP’s environmental and tort practice groupin Kansas City, Mo.
“The orders are similar in that they allow the purchase of PFAS-containing products where no comparable alternative is available,” Cunningham said. “Although the exception provides some room for procurement of PFAS containing products, the impact of these policies is still significant.”
Government agencies’ budgets and purchases are large—especially the Defense Department—and federal purchasing policies such as this can make a meaningful difference in preventing PFOA and PFOS contamination, she said.
It’s unclear how much of an affect the order will have on the market for PFAS-containing products—especially carpet.
The federal government purchases about 20 million square feet of carpet annually, General Services Administration spokeswoman Christina Wilkes said. That’s a small fraction of 2020 U.S. flooring sales, which totaled nearly 19 billion square feet, according to the trade publication Floor Covering News.
“GSA will work to understand and implement the requirements of the executive order and will seek to eliminate non-essential uses of PFAS in building materials, while encouraging the development of alternatives,” Wilkes said.
The Environmental Protection Agency declined to answer specific questions about the order, but said using federal purchasing power to avoid PFAS products demonstrates the administration’s commitment to address risks from the chemicals.
“The Federal Sustainability Plan released by the Biden Administration prioritizes the purchase of sustainable products, such as products without PFAS,” said Taylor Gillespie, EPA strategic communications coordinator.
PFAS producers believe not all of the substances should be equally shunned.
“Not all PFAS are the same, and they should not all be regulated the same way or subject to blanket restrictions,” said Tom Flanagan, spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, which represents PFAS manufacturers.
— With assistance from Andrew Wallender and Pat Rizzuto.