The US Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday that it is proposing to label certain “forever chemicals” found in hundreds of household items and contaminating drinking water systems across the country as hazardous substances.
There are thousands of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals Since the 1940s, manufacturers have used chemicals to make coatings and products that can repel water, grease, heat, and oil. The chemicals slowly break down over time and leach into water and soil, and have been found in the blood of people and animals.
The latest science suggests that these chemicals are far more dangerous to human health than scientists had initially thought and are likely more dangerous at levels thousands of times lower than previously believed. Exposure to the chemical can lead to reproductive problems, heart problems, respiratory problems, cancer, and problems with the immune system.
EPA’s new proposal is to designate two of the most widely used PFAS, PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous substances under Superfund regulations. The EPA said it will publish the proposed rule in the federal register in the coming weeks. That would give the public 60 days to comment before the rule can be finalized.
If the proposal is finalized, releases of certain amounts of these chemicals will have to be reported to the government. The EPA believes this would encourage companies to have better waste management practices at facilities that handle the chemical.
The EPA said the rule could also make the polluter pay fines and cleanup costs.
In June, the EPA slashed the recommended limits for these chemicals. For the first time, the EPA also issued final advisories on limits in drinking water for the chemical PFAS GenX.
“Communities have suffered for too long from exposure to these chemicals forever. The action announced today will enhance transparency and further EPA’s aggressive efforts to address this contamination, as outlined in the agency’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement. agency press release. “Under this proposed rule, EPA will help protect communities from PFAS contamination and seek to hold polluters accountable for their actions.”
Over the past decade, chemical manufacturers have voluntarily stopped producing PFOS and PFOA. At the federal level, the US Food and Drug Administration has eliminated the use of certain PFAS chemicals in 2016. The FDA and manufacturers have agreed in 2020 to phase out some PFAS chemicals from food packaging and other items that come into contact with food. However, environmental monitoring by the FDA showed that the chemicals tend to persist.
Testing by Toxic-Free Future, a nonprofit organization, found that 74% of imported products still contain older PFAS chemicals.
These chemicals can easily migrate into air, dust, food, soil, and water. People can also be exposed to them through food packaging and industrial work.
PFAS has also been found in high concentrations in the country’s military bases. the US Department of Defense says it has spent more than $1.5 billion on PFAS-related research and cleanup efforts.
In the body, the chemicals settle mainly in the blood, kidneys, and liver. A 2007 study of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. estimated that PFAS chemicals could be detected in 98% of the US population.
Tim Whitehouse, the CEO of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that works on environmental ethics and scientific integrity issues, said this latest move by the EPA is just one small step in the fight to end PFAS pollution.
“EPA action is too little, too late,” Whitehouse said. “This administration and previous administrations have been playing games trying not to upset the chemical companies and the communities suffer.”
Whitehouse said that while a Superfund designation means certain sites could be cleaned up with Superfund money and Superfund designations, it will take years to come.
“Some communities may benefit from the proposed rule, but it doesn’t solve the problem, and the problem is that the EPA refuses to develop management standards for PFAS waste,” Whitehouse said. Since they are chemicals forever, there is no real, safe way to get rid of them.
“We’re just going to have more and more Superfund sites. So it’s just a Band-Aid on a problem that’s created every day,” Whitehouse said. “This only fixes a problem that has already been created instead of stopping future problems.”