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Biden administration moves to curtail 'forever chemicals'

The EPA laid the groundwork for new regulations on chemical compounds linked to serious health conditions

In an effort to better protect Americans from toxic compounds called “forever chemicals” for their resistance to dissolution, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a roadmap to new regulations Monday.

“For far too long, families across America – especially those in underserved communities – have suffered from PFAS in their water, their air, or in the land their children play on,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement Monday, using the acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

PFAS refers to thousands of toxic chemicals utilized by manufacturing companies to create products like Teflon pans, firefighting foam, waterproof jackets, water-resistant carpets, waterproof mascara and eyeliner, sunscreen and shampoo. 

The chemical compounds, which have been used to make commercial products since the 1950s, feature a unique molecular makeup that allows them to persist in both bodies and the environment for decades, resistant to heat, oil, stains, grease and water. PFAS have been detected in drinking water, food and in Americans’ blood streams.

While there are more than 5,000 chemicals that belong to the PFAS subset, the EPA has thus far only administered health advisories on two: PFOS, used in Teflon, and PFOA, formerly an ingredient in 3M Scotchgard fabric protectors.

In 2016, after reviewing several peer-reviewed studies, the agency said that a lifetime of exposure to PFOA and PFOS from drinking water over 70 parts per trillion may result in adverse health effects, including birth defects, cancer and damage to the liver, thyroid and immune system.

The plan introduced Monday “to confront PFAS contamination nationwide” establishes a timeline to set enforceable drinking water limits under the Safe Drinking Water Act “to ensure water is safe to drink in every community” and creates a hazardous substance designation under the federal Superfund law to expand the government’s ability to hold those who release PFAS into the environment financially accountable.

The EPA also said it plans to review past actions taken under the Toxic Substances Control Act relating to PFAS and address insufficient responses.

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In addition, the agency will increase data collection and research surrounding PFAS in order to better identify what other actions are needed and conduct a final toxicity assessment for a subset of PFAS called GenX used in nonstick coatings that has been found in drinking water, rainwater and air samples. It will also look into PFAS air pollution.

“This comprehensive, national PFAS strategy will deliver protections to people who are hurting, by advancing bold and concrete actions that address the full lifecycle of these chemicals,” Regan said Monday, adding that his agency is “laser focused on protecting people from pollution and holding polluters accountable.”

The roadmap was developed from an analysis conducted by the EPA Council on PFAS that Regan established in April, and focuses on three guide strategies: “Increase investments in research, leverage authorities to take action now to restrict PFAS chemicals from being released into the environment, and accelerate the cleanup of PFAS contamination.”

As a former North Carolina environmental regulator, Regan has spoken widely about how he’s seen PFAS contamination devastate communities in his home state. The EPA chief led negotiations that resulted in the cleanup of the Cape Fear River, a water source contaminated by PFAS released by a manufacturing plant operating under a spinoff of chemical giant DuPont.

Studies conducted by the C8 science panel have linked PFAS to kidney and testicular cancers and endocrine disruptors in humans. Clusters of cancers and immune system diseases are also often prevalent in communities near military bases that use PFAS-containing firefighting foam.

A study published last year, commissioned by the Environmental Working Group, found that out of singular tap water samples from 44 places across 31 states and the District of Columbia, only one location had no detectable PFAS. The group also found that 99% of Americans have PFAS in their blood.

While an official from the EWG praised the Biden administration on Monday for taking action on PFAS contamination, the group also urged the EPA to more heavily regulate the disposal of PFAS wastes, “including a ban on the incineration of PFAS wastes and mandatory testing for PFAS in sludge applied to farm fields.”

“After more than two decades of delay, it’s good news that EPA is finally starting to act. But we must move even faster to turn off the tap of PFAS pollution by industry,” said Scott Faber, EWG senior vice president for government affairs, in a statement. “Communities living downwind and downstream of these polluters have waited decades for action.”

However, the Biden administration faces resistance from players in the chemical industry who have maintained that the sector is already highly regulated and PFAS are needed to create devices that aide modern life.

The American Chemistry Council said as much just last month.

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“PFAS are diverse chemistries that make possible the products that power our lives— including cellphones, tablets and telecommunications we use every day to connect with friends and family; aircraft that are critical to the U.S. military; alternative energy sources essential to sustainability goals; and medical devices that help keep us healthy,” the group wrote. “There are not commercially available substitutes for PFAS in many of these applications.”

The EPA plans to host national webinars on Oct. 26 and Nov. 2 to speak with stakeholders about the roadmap for PFAS regulation.

Separate from the EPA’s new regulation plan, President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan has earmarked roughly $10 billion in funds that would be used in part to monitor and remediate PFAS in drinking water.

Congress is also considering legislation, currently passed by the House and stalled in the Senate, that would establish a national drinking water standard for PFAS as well as discharge limits for industries that pollute water sources with PFAS.

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The EPA plans to host national webinars on Oct. 26 and Nov. 2 to speak with stakeholders about the roadmap for PFAS regulation.