One of the most fascinating things about science is that it’s constantly evolving. As scientists study and learn new things, our collective understanding as a society evolves, and sometimes, we do better after we learn better. Want proof? Think about the history of lead in things many people use (or are exposed to) every day.
Once upon a time, lead was regarded as a perfectly fine thing to put in everyday things like paint and gasoline. However, after decades of scientific research, and plenty of fighting over what scientists had found, society mostly agreed that it was a collective good to remove that stuff. Phaseout in the U.S. started in 1978, and rolled out to other countries later. By 2013, most countries had phased out leaded gasoline entirely, according to the National Resources Defense Council.
As a result, the health of humans, animals, and the environment has largely benefited. Now it’s 2022, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is beginning to take action on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively known as PFAS. These chemicals have been in common use for a long time, in everything from non-stick cookware to water-resistant clothing, as well as various plastic and rubber items.
That’s why the Motorcycle Industry Council issued a press release warning that “PFAS Regulations Could Change Powersports Manufacturing Forever.” Although the tone of the piece is clearly meant to sound an alarm of some kind, that line alone could certainly be true, taken in and of itself. But does that change have to necessarily be a bad thing? It wasn’t, after all, a bad thing with lead. (Why else would the people of Flint, Michigan still be fighting in 2022 to get the lead out of their drinking water?)
It’s true that chemicals in the PFAS class aren’t lead. It’s also true that scientists are the first to say they don’t fully understand the entire depth and breadth of how PFAS function in humans, animals, and the environment. That’s why more testing is needed—and with over 5,000 different PFAS currently in use, there’s a whole lot of studying to be done if society is ever to have a better understanding.
The reason for concern isn’t just a hand-wringing sense of “ooh, scary chemicals” nonsense, either. In 2005, a class action lawsuit against DuPont resulted in some significant PFAS epidemiological research. There, a panel of three career epidemiologists “found a probable link between long-term exposure to the chemical and certain medical conditions, such as kidney cancer and thyroid disease," according to NPR.
The thing about PFAS is, they’re so widespread, they’re pretty much everywhere. They also don’t break down easily, and stay in the environment for an extremely long time. You and I both probably have some in our bloodstreams right now, even though most of us have probably never met.
It’s true that powersports manufacturers—whether that’s OEMs, accessories and parts makers, or gear companies—may have to change how they do things. (As will plenty of other industries.) Some U.S. states have either already banned or are in the process of passing legislation at the state level to ban PFAS in products sold within their borders. As of 2023, Maine will require registration of all PFAS-containing products, moving to a complete ban in 2030. Colorado wants to control youth exposure, and California, Georgia, Massachusetts, and North Carolina all have PFAS legislation in the works.
Change can lead to innovation, though. Change can lead to finding new and better ways to do things, in ways that are good for riders, good for humans, good for animals, and good for the environment. Change does not always need to be bad or scary. It may not necessarily be cheap for companies to adapt, but don’t we all want to live (and ride our bikes, ATVs, and other vehicles) in a world that’s healthier for everyone we care about?