Public Pressure Over PFAS Chemical Contamination Forces EPA to Regulate Them

Late last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it would soon set legal limits for two PFAS chemicals in drinking water.  According to Bloomberg News, under the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the “preliminary regulatory determination” is the last step before the EPA proposes actual limits on the releases of the two chemicals in drinking water and groundwater supplies, but it could be months before the limits are announced.

Why This Matters: This announcement is certainly progress — but no limits have been set yet and we would not be this close to having them if it were not for huge pressure on the EPA from lawmakers and the public.  States were beginning to set limits on these “forever” chemicals and so a uniform federal standard is actually in industry’s best interest, and it may be lower than those set by states, which would then be pre-empted by federal law.  The EPA said in its press release that “[a]ggressively addressing Per and Polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) is an ongoing and high priority effort for EPA.”  We will see how “aggressive” they are.  Just a month ago, President Trump promised to veto any legislation if it mandated regulating PFAS. 

Avalanche of Pressure On EPA

EPA has wasted decades deciding whether to regulate PFAS – and they could take many more years before a drinking water standard is finalized,” said EWG Legislative Attorney Melanie Benesh. “But today’s decision shows that an avalanche of public pressure and overwhelming science is finally forcing EPA to act.”  Benesh cited bipartisan support for H.R. 535, the PFAS Action Act, and efforts by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), to secure commitments from EPA, as critical moments in the fight to get PFAS out of tap water.  Benesh cautioned as well that “States should not wait for the EPA to act,” because “[i]t will be years – if ever – before a final drinking water standard is set. States should continue to set their own standards to protect Americans from toxic PFAS.”

Forever Chemicals

PFAS chemicals are linked to serious health concerns including kidney and testicular cancer, reproductive and developmental harms, and reduced effectiveness of vaccines. PFAS chemicals never break down in the environment and can stay in the human body for decades.  ODP has reported several times on the extent of the problem — it is particularly acute in communities with military bases and 3M plants, which both used the chemicals extensively.  According to The Hill, EPA’s own data show 1.3 percent of all public water systems had detections of PFAS at or above the nation’s health advisory level.  Moreover, The Hill reported on Saturday that a notice of a proposed rule posted to the Federal Register Friday would exclude manufacturers of PFAS from providing financial assurances under the Superfund law, which directs the cleanup of hazardous waste sites.

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