A move to rein in cancer-causing 'forever chemicals'
The Biden administration on Monday said it would require chemical manufacturers to test and publicly report the amount of a family of chemicals known as PFAS that is contained in household items like tape, nonstick pans and stain-resistant furniture, the first step toward reducing their presence in drinking water.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, or PFAS refers to more than 4,000 man-made chemicals that are often called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment. Exposure to the chemicals has been linked to certain cancers, weakened immunity, thyroid disease, and other health effects.
Michael S. Regan, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in an interview that regulating PFAS has been one of his priorities. He previously served as the top environmental regulator in North Carolina where startlingly high concentrations of the chemicals were found in several sources of public drinking water.
“PFAS contamination has been devastating communities for decades. I saw this first hand in North Carolina,” Mr. Regan said. He recounted visiting with mothers unsure if their children’s drinking water was safe, and caregivers wondering if a loved one’s terminal illness was associated with exposure to the chemicals.
The new E.P.A. testing requirements will go into effect “in a matter of weeks,” Mr. Regan said. The agency did not provide an estimate of the cost to manufacturers but Mr. Regan said it is a cost that industry, not taxpayers, should bear.
“It could be expensive, but it’s necessary,” Mr. Regan said. “It’s time for manufacturers to be transparent and provide the American people with this level of detail,” he said.
Thousands of chemicals classified as PFAS are ubiquitous in consumer products because they increase resistance to heat, stains, water and grease. The E.P.A. plans to group the chemicals into 20 subcategories based on shared characteristics. By the end of 2021, the E.P.A. will require manufacturers to test chemicals from each grouping, which the agency said will yield data on more than 2,000 PFAS to inform E.P.A. plans going forward.
Mr. Regan discussed the new policies at North Carolina State University in Raleigh flanked by local officials including Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. The E.P.A. will take additional regulatory steps involving PFAS that it will propose by 2022, Mr. Regan said.
The list, which the E.P.A. described as a “road map” includes setting legal limits for safe levels of PFAS in drinking water, which the chemical industry tentatively supports; designating it as a hazardous substance under the laws that govern toxic Superfund sites, which industry opposes; and increasing monitoring and research.
Meanwhile the Department of Defense, is expected to review how to clean PFAS contamination at nearly 700 military installations and National Guard locations by the end of 2023. The chemicals are in a foam used at military installations and by civilian firefighters to extinguish fires.
Since 2016, the E.P.A. has recommended that PFAS levels in drinking water not exceed 70 parts per trillion. But without regulations, the agency has not been able to mandate that level. What’s more, independent scientists and some state regulatory agencies say 70 parts per trillion is too high and the limit should be much lower.
The American Chemistry Council, a trade organization, noted that about 600 chemicals in the PFAS category are used to manufacture products like solar panels and cellphones, and said alternative materials might not be available to replace them. “The American Chemistry Council supports the strong, science-based regulation of chemicals, including PFAS substances. But all PFAS are not the same, and they should not all be regulated the same way,” Erich Shea, a spokesman for the organization, said in a statement.
Environmentalists said they don’t believe there is a safe level of PFAS in drinking water.
Kemp Burdette, 47, works for Cape Fear River Watch in Wilmington, N.C., where he used to encourage people to drink tap water to avoid using disposable plastic bottles. Then he discovered that PFAS levels in the local tap water had reached as high as 6,000 parts per trillion, the result of years of contaminated wastewater discharged into the Cape Fear River by a Dupont plant, later owned by The Chemours Company.
“All of a sudden you’re like, ‘What’s in the water? What is this stuff? How long have we been drinking it’?” Mr. Burdette said. “My kids were drinking that water all their lives.”
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, then under the leadership Mr. Regan, ultimately reached an agreement requiring Chemours to pay a $13 million fine.
A spokesman for Chemours referred questions to the American Chemistry Council.
President Biden has called for about $10 billion in funding to address PFAS contamination through a bipartisan infrastructure package and a separate budget bill that Congress has been struggling to approve.