Small Victory in Chemical War

After years of ANH and stakeholder advocacy, the feds are finally taking notice—but it’s not enough. Action Alert!

The EPA has released a plan for tackling widespread contamination by a group of toxic industrial compounds known as Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances or PFAS, which have been found in drinking water across the country. It is part of what the Biden administration announced as a multi-agency plan to address PFAS contamination. While this is a positive step, it is far from sufficient to protect Americans from this class of harmful chemicals.

There are many provisions covered in the EPA’s Strategic Action Plan. The EPA plans to:

  • set enforceable drinking water limits for two of the best-known chemicals of the class, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), by the fall of 2023;
  • complete a risk assessment for PFOA and PFOS in sludge by the winter of 2024;
  • publish a national PFAS testing strategy intended to deepen understanding of the impacts of categories of PFAS, including potential hazards to human health and the environment;
  • put in place a “robust review process” to ensure new PFAS chemicals are safe before they enter commerce, and review existing PFAS to ensure they are being used in ways that do not present concerns;
  • issue final new PFAS reporting requirements under the Toxic Substances Control Act to better understand the sources and quantities of manufactured PFAS in the United States.

There are many other provisions contained in the plan that can be reviewed here.

It’s good that action is being taken against these ubiquitous compounds, but critics have pointed out that they fall far short of what is necessary to really address the problem. For one, the fulfillment of these plans is contingent upon getting appropriations from Congress, which is far from guaranteed. Further, Robert Bilott, the attorney who represented 80,000 people whose drinking water was polluted with PFAS in West Virginia, told the news outlet The Intercept:

I first wrote to U.S. EPA March 6, 2001, asking and urging the agency to take action to protect people from PFOA in public drinking water. It is now 20 years later, and we are still waiting for them to actually do it, as opposed to announcing plans to do it years in the future…We’ve had two prior action plans, which went nowhere, so it’s frustrating because there’s no actual actions being announced as opposed to plans.

Another problem is that, in many of its plans, the EPA focuses on two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, but fails to tackle PFAS as a class of chemicals, which experts say is necessary if we want to seriously address the dangers. Otherwise, regulators must deal with each compound individually. There are currently 4,700 PFAS chemicals, and the number is growing. Not regulating these chemicals as a class is a gift to industry while selling out public health.

It is also difficult to take the EPA seriously when it says it will institute a “rigorous review process” for new PFAS before they come to market—particularly given the level of corruption that whistleblowers have documented at the agency. This same “rigorous review process” has resulted in hundreds of PFAS being approved over the years. This, to us, just seems like business as usual at the EPA.

PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment and accumulate in human blood and organs. These compounds are used to make products water and stain resistant and are found in Teflon, dental floss, eyeliner, food packaging, carpeting, and textiles. Because these chemicals are water soluble as well as resistant to heat, oils, and grease, they can easily move through the environment. They are linked to a wide range of health concerns such as cancer, thyroid disorders, kidney disease, autoimmune problems, liver disease, high cholesterol, developmental problems in fetuses, Parkinson’s disease, bone disease, and more.

It is good that national attention to PFAS contamination has moved federal regulators to act on PFAS. But we must hold their feet to the fire to make sure these are not just public relations stunts and put pressure on these agencies to do more to protect public health rather than industry profits.

Action Alert! Write to Congress, urging stronger actions against PFAS chemicals. Please send your message immediately.