EPA to call forever chemicals as hazardous

The Environmental Protection Agency moved Friday to designate two "forever chemicals" used in cookware, carpets and firefighting foams as hazardous substances. This step would clear the way for quicker cleanup of the toxic compounds, which have been linked to cancer and other health problems.

The Environmental Protection Agency moved Friday to designate two “forever chemicals” used in cookware, carpets and firefighting foams as hazardous substances. This step would clear the way for quicker cleanup of the toxic compounds. They have been linked to cancer and other health problems.

Designation as a hazardous substance under the so-called Superfund law doesn’t ban the chemicals. It requires releases of PFOA and PFOS into soil or water to be reported to federal, state or tribal officials if they meet or exceed certain levels. The EPA could require cleanups to protect public health and recover cleanup costs.

PFOA and PFOS have been voluntarily phased out by U.S. manufacturers. They are still in limited use and remain in the environment because they do not degrade over time. The compounds are part of a cluster of “forever chemicals” known as PFAS in use since the 1940s. The term is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. They have been used in nonstick frying pans, water-repellent sports gear, stain-resistant rugs, cosmetics and countless other consumer products.

The chemicals can accumulate and persist in the human body for long periods. Evidence from animal and human studies indicates that exposure to PFOA or PFOS may lead to cancer or other health problems.

“Communities have suffered far too long from exposure to these forever chemicals,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement Friday. “The action announced today will improve transparency and advance EPA’s aggressive efforts to confront this pollution.”

Under the proposed rule, “EPA will help protect communities from PFAS pollution. They seek to hold polluters accountable for their actions,” Regan said. The rule is expected to become final next year.

What the rule around forever chemicals means

The Superfund law allows the EPA to clean up contaminated sites. It forces responsible parties to either perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-led cleanup work. When no responsible party can be identified, Superfund gives EPA money and authority to clean up contaminated sites.

The EPA’s action follows a recent report by the National Academies of Science that calls PFAS a serious public health threat in the U.S. and worldwide. It comes after an EPA announcement in June that PFOA and PFOS are more dangerous than previously thought and pose health risks even at levels so low they cannot be detected.

The agency issued nonbinding health advisories that set health risk thresholds for PFOA and PFOS to near zero. It replaces 2016 guidelines that had set them at 70 parts per trillion. The chemicals are found in cardboard packaging, carpets and firefighting foam, and increasingly found in water.

The EPA stated that it is focused on holding responsible companies that manufactured and released significant amounts of PFOA and PFOS into the environment. They will not target individual landowners or farmers “who may have been inadvertently impacted by the contamination”. The agency also said it is committed to further outreach and engagement to hear from communities affected by PFAS pollution.

Erik Olson, a health and food expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the announcement an important step to cleaning up hundreds of contaminated sites across the country and protecting millions of families exposed to the toxic chemicals.

“Listing PFOA and PFOS as hazardous should allow EPA to hold polluters responsible for that contamination,” he said. “Ratepayers and public utilities should not be footing the bill for industry’s decades of wonton use of these dangerous chemicals.”

Removing forever chemicals to improve people’s lives

Attorney Rob Bilott, an anti-PFAS advocate, said the EPA’s proposal “sends a loud and clear message to the entire world that the United States is finally acknowledging and accepting the overwhelming evidence that these man-made poisons present a substantial danger to the public health and the environment.”

Bilott, whose work to uncover the widespread presence of PFAS chemicals in the environment and human blood was highlighted in the 2019 film “Dark Waters,” said the EPA must work to ensure that costs of cleaning up the toxins are borne by PFAS manufacturers that caused the contamination. “The costs should not be borne by the innocent victims of this pollution. They didn’t create the toxins. They were never warned this was happening.”

Concerns from other stakeholders

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said she supports strong action to address PFAS contamination in West Virginia and across the country. However, she is concerned about “the unintended consequences that today’s proposal could have.”

If finalised, “property owners, farmers, employers, essential utilities and individuals may be liable for unknowingly having PFAS on their land. That could include situations where it was there years or even generations before ownership. What if it came from an unknown source?”

She urged the EPA to develop an enforceable drinking water standard to promote the health and safety of all Americans.

The American Chemistry Council, representing major chemical companies, called the EPA’s proposal “an expensive, ineffective and unworkable means to achieve remediation for these chemicals.”

The group said that listing the chemicals could harm local fire departments, water utilities, small businesses, airports and farmers. “The proposed (Superfund) designation would impose tremendous costs on these parties without defined cleanup standards,” the council said in a statement.

The EPA expects to propose national drinking water regulations for PFOA and PFOS later this year, with a final rule expected in 2023.

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