The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took a major step on Friday towards regulating the toxic substances known as “forever chemicals” for their tendency to persist in the environment and the human body.
The agency announced a proposal to list two of the most common per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), more commonly known as the Superfund law. This means that companies would have to report any releases of the two chemicals and potentially shoulder the cost of cleanup.
“Communities have suffered far too long from exposure to these forever chemicals. The action announced today will improve transparency and advance EPA’s aggressive efforts to confront this pollution, as outlined in the Agency’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in the announcement. “Under this proposed rule, EPA will both help protect communities from PFAS pollution and seek to hold polluters accountable for their actions.”
The two PFAS targeted by the proposed rule are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). Both take a very long time to break down and have been linked to health impacts including cancer; heart, lung and liver disease; reproductive and developmental problems and immune suppression.
“Administrator Regan made the right call by naming PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances — a long overdue but welcome action,” director of policy analysis for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists Gema Reed said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. “For decades, too many people have shouldered not just the health costs of exposure to PFAS chemicals, but the financial burden associated with protecting their families and communities from these chemicals. These burdens have fallen harder on communities of color, low-income neighborhoods, and families living in or near military bases. With this rule, EPA will require that the makers and users of these two PFAS pay to clean up their mess.”
The proposed rule would mean that releases of the two chemicals over a certain amount would need to be reported to the proper federal, state or Tribal authorities, the agency explained. In some cases, the EPA could choose to seek funds from the organization responsible for the release in order to pay for necessary cleanups. The EPA said the proposed rule would help regulators have a better sense of the scope of PFOA and PFOS pollution and incentivize manufacturers to better manage their waste.
The proposal has received some pushback from business interests and Republican lawmakers over the polluter-pays elements, The New York Times reported.
“It would slow current cleanups, impose significant liability and compliance costs, and lead to unintended consequences, without effectively addressing the challenges presented by PFAS,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
On the other side, environmental and public health groups point out that the regulation only applies to two out of more than 4,000 PFAS and comes after the EPA has dragged its heels on effectively regulating the chemicals.
“EPA actions are too little and too late,” Tim Whitehouse, the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told CNN. “This administration and previous administrations have been fiddling around trying not to upset chemical companies and communities suffer.”
PFAS are commonly used in water-, grease- and heat-resistant products. While the chemical industry has agreed to stop making PFOA and PFOS during the past 10 years and the Food and Drug Administration and private manufacturers said in 2020 they would phase out some PFAS in food packaging, the fact that the chemicals linger in the environment means that the problem can persist long beyond such promises.
The EPA under President Joe Biden has outlined Administrator Regan’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap in order to address the issue. As part of this plan, the agency set the health limit for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water to almost zero in June.
The current proposal will be added to the federal register within weeks, after which the public will have 60 days to comment on it, The New York Times reported. It is also possible that the EPA may list more PFAS in the future, as, indeed, advocacy groups are calling on it to do.
“We applaud EPA’s action to address the PFAS crisis plaguing communities across the country. It is an important first step that will hold polluters accountable and start cleaning up contaminated sites,” Liz Hitchcock, director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, the federal policy program of Toxic-Free Future, said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. “Communities are paying for this pollution with our health and our tax dollars. We need continued action — to declare the full class of PFAS hazardous and to prevent further pollution by ending use of all PFAS chemicals in common products like food packaging and firefighting gear.”