On February 14, Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the EPA’s new action plan to respond to Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). PFAS are synthetic chemicals used in many household and industrial products since the 1940s. Items such as some nonstick cookware, some grease resistant paper, stain resistant coatings, cleaning and personal care products, and paint contain PFAS. PFAS have become pervasive in the air, soil, and water exposing most people in the United States to the chemicals through drinking water, eating fish contaminated with PFAS, ingesting food packaged with products containing PFAS, and using certain products containing PFAS. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has found in some studies that exposure to PFAS may affect growth, learning, and behavior in children; increase cholesterol; lower a woman’s chances of becoming pregnant; affect the immune system; interfere with natural hormones; and increase the risk of cancer.
The EPA’s new action plan contains both short- and long-term solutions to the PFAS problems. One of the major actions is to establish maximum contaminant levels (MCL) for PFAS in drinking water. Plans are also underway to list PFAS as hazardous substances under CERCLA as part of an effort to hold parties responsible for releasing PFAS into the environment. The EPA will develop recommendations for cleaning up water contaminated with PFAS. Additionally, the EPA is working on toxicity assessments to increase understanding about the effects of PFAS on humans. This process will continue into 2020. Finally, the EPA plans to work to ensure that new PFAS chemicals are safe.
The short-term actions are divided into three different categories: understanding and addressing PFAS toxicity and occurrence; identifying and addressing exposure; and risk communication and engagement. Understanding includes creating a clearinghouse of chemical information for PFAS chemicals. Additionally, there is a need to develop better methods for testing for PFAS chemicals in drinking water as well as actually conducting such tests. Identifying and addressing exposure includes developing treatment and remediation technologies to handle existing PFAS in the environment as well as understanding the prevalence of PFAS infiltration. Communication requires dissemination of information to the general public to address concerns related to health issues stemming from PFAS exposure.
Long-term actions involve more research into PFAS. There is the need for more information about PFAS infiltration in the atmosphere and ways to protect the ecosystem from PFAS. There needs to be a concerted effort to study PFAS chemicals and create a database with specific information about different PFAS chemicals. There also needs to be greater accountability for those who release PFAS which infiltrate the nation’s drinking water. These chemicals have been used for decades, but little has been done to make the public aware of the possible dangers caused by exposure to these chemicals that persist and do not degrade.
Some have been critical of the announcement of these plans. One major criticism is that MCL levels could be set immediately, and that the EPA is merely trying to delay this much needed step by claiming that more research and analysis is needed before such levels are established. Senator Tom Carper, the ranking member of the environment committee, released a statement expressing displeasure at the announcement. He stated that the EPA has taken a year since former Administrator Pruitt announced that the agency would be looking into PFAS drinking water standards to announce that they were still not ready to set such standards. According to Sen. Carper, “While EPA acts with the utmost urgency to repeal regulations, the agency ambles with complacency when it comes to taking real steps to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe.” Rob Allen, the mayor of Hoosick Falls, a town in New York with drinking water contaminated by manufacturing of PFAS, said on Twitter, “Rome is burning. @EPA’s going to begin a process to see if they need to act . . . .”