WASHINGTON – On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency canceled a study to look into the incineration of the fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS. The study would have burned toxic PFAS and measured the amount released into the air at the Union County Resource Recovery Facility on the Rahway River in New Jersey.
Researchers at the Environmental Working Group recently published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Chemosphere that found burning, discarding and flushing materials containing PFAS do not effectively contain or destroy them but rather end up just returning either the same chemicals or their byproducts back into the environment.
“More research on PFAS waste disposal is urgently needed,” said Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., vice president for science investigations at EWG. “These tests must be planned and conducted in a fully transparent way, with the consent of the nearby residents. The idea of a test burn in a location with large communities of color raises concerns about environmental justice,” added Naidenko.
In a statement, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler attacked former EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck and blamed her for voicing concerns about the proposed study:
Former Obama Administration EPA leader Judith Enck’s unprofessionalism, personal ignorance, and dishonesty has single-handedly shut down the Rahway study setting back the agency’s research efforts on PFAS. … Enck’s politicization of ongoing bipartisan research efforts with the State of New Jersey is a disservice to communities throughout the Garden State and the country as a whole. Due to Enck’s meritless claims, the study has been cancelled to the detriment of science, a better understanding PFAS, and the protection of public health and the environment.
“This vicious personal attack on Judith Enck is reprehensible,” said Melanie Benesh, EWG’s legislative attorney. “It shows the unrelenting hostility of this administration toward protecting public health and the environment. She is a leading environmental advocate who has worked to bring clean drinking water to Hoosick Falls, N.Y., which has been devastated by PFAS contamination.”
PFAS are used in hundreds of products, such as food packaging, clothing, carpets and cookware, for their waterproofing or grease-proofing properties. They are called “forever chemicals” because they never break down in the environment, which means they could move through the waste cycle indefinitely. PFAS chemicals suppress the immune system and are associated with cancer, reproductive and developmental harms, and reduced effectiveness of vaccines.
Thousands of U.S. communities with PFAS contamination are urgently looking for treatment options, but every technology currently in use produces PFAS-laden waste. These disposal practices move PFAS among waste management sites and contaminate air, soil and water along the way. A provision in the House-passed National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2021 would place a moratorium on the incineration of military PFAS waste until the EPA issues regulations ensuring incineration can be done safely.
The fate of PFAS under commercial incinerators’ current operating conditions is largely unknown. This data gap must be addressed, and studies should be conducted on PFAS combustion in various types of incinerator facilities, from those handling municipal solid waste or biosolids to those processing hazardous waste. Research is essential on the optimal temperatures and incinerator residence times for complete PFAS destruction in commercially run incinerators.
“Pollution from waste disposal sites disproportionately affects the low-income communities who are already overburdened with pollution and now are struggling with COVID-19,” said Naidenko. “The location of waste incineration facilities in places where they disproportionately affect people of color is a grievous historical injustice, and it must be remedied. Conducting tests in such communities is not acceptable.”
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action. Visit https://www.ewg.org/pfaschemicals/