EPA unveils new strategy to address US contamination of ‘forever’ chemicals

by Carey Gillam

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Monday announced a “strategic roadmap” it said would help restrict a class of toxic chemicals from being released into the environment and accelerate the cleanup of existing contamination of “forever chemicals” that are associated with a range of human health dangers.

The news comes a day after the Guardian revealed an EPA data set that lists roughly 120,000 industrial sites around the country that may be, or may have been, handling PFAS chemicals. The data set includes facility locations and operation details, and was compiled by EPA researchers to help state and local officials work with the federal government in addressing contamination concerns.

The extent of the EPA list of facilities demonstrates that virtually no part of the US appears free from the potential risk of contamination with the chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

The synthetic chemicals are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they do not naturally break down and have been shown to accumulate in the environment as well as in people and animals. Some PFAS have been linked to cancer, birth defects, liver disease, thyroid disease, decreased immunity, hormone disruption and a range of other serious health problems.

“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.

“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. Let there be no doubt that EPA is listening, we have your back, and we are laser focused on protecting people from pollution and holding polluters accountable,” Regan said.

The EPA said it will hold national webinars on 26 October and 2 November to engage with stakeholders.

The agency said highlights of its plan include:

“Aggressive” timelines to set enforceable drinking water limits under the Safe Drinking Water Act “to ensure water is safe to drink in every community”.

Timelines for actions involved in the establishment of “effluent guideline limitations”, for nine industrial categories.

Establishment of a hazardous substance designation under the federal Superfund law that enhances the government’s ability to hold PFAS polluters financially accountable.

A review of past actions on PFAS taken under the Toxic Substances Control Act to address those that are insufficient.

Increased monitoring, data collection and research so that the agency can identify what actions are needed and when to take them.

A final toxicity assessment for a type of PFAS called GenX used in manufacturing nonstick coatings that has been found in drinking water, rainwater and air samples.

Continued efforts to address PFAS emissions into the air.

The agency said it will also be increasing investments in research related to PFAS. Joe Biden has called for more than $10bn in funding to “monitor and remediate PFAS in drinking water” among other water system improvements.

The EPA said the new plan “answers the call for action on these persistent and dangerous chemicals”.

But critics say the agency has been slow to address the known health hazards.

“The concerns have been well known for about 20 years now,” said Dusty Horwitt, author of a recent report on PFAS by the nonprofit group Physicians for Social Responsibility. “The EPA has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to protecting the public from PFAS pollution.”

Debate over PFAS regulation is fraught with competing political pressures, and the Biden Administration faces resistance from chemical industry advocates who argue that PFAS are essential to many consumer products and industrial practices, and are already “highly regulated”. Those types of PFAS known to be harmful have already being discontinued by US manufacturers, the industry maintains.

Many influential corporations are engaged in industries that make or handle PFAS chemicals. Those industries include chemical manufacturing, oil and gas work, waste management, electronics manufacturing, plastics, and many others.

The health hazards of PFAS came into the public spotlight in the mid-2000s, when the lawyer Rob Bilott negotiated a class-action settlement with DuPont over contamination of drinking water in West Virginia. Bilott sent the EPA thousands of pages of DuPont’s internal corporate documents he said showed the company hid information about the human health risks associated with its PFAS use.

Bilott has spent the last two decades advocating for strict PFAS regulation and corporate accountability for PFAS pollution. He is seeking court certification for a class-action lawsuit against a group of chemical manufacturers on behalf of everyone in the United States who has been exposed to PFAS.

“It is critically important that those who manufactured these PFAS chemicals and made enormous profits from pumping these toxins into our environment for decades, knowing that they would end up in consumer products, waste, and landfills across the country, and ultimately in our drinking water – and in our blood – are held fully responsible for the costs of responding to and cleaning up this contamination,” Bilott said.