When it comes to household waste, we all know the mantra: Reduce, reuse, recycle.
When it comes to pollution from the toxic fluorinated chemicals called PFAS, Congress should adopt a different three-part approach: Report PFAS releases, reduce PFAS discharges and remediate legacy PFAS pollution.
This summer, members of Congress have a chance to make progress on all three fronts. The House and Senate versions of a must-pass defense spending bill, the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2020, include provisions that would:
- Require reporting of some PFAS releases through the Toxic Release Inventory.
- Quickly end military uses of PFAS in firefighting foam and food packaging.
- Reduce industrial discharges of PFAS into drinking water supplies.
- Remediate sites with the worst PFAS contamination.
PFAS chemicals have been linked to cancer and harm to the reproductive and immune systems. PFAS contamination has been found in more than 700 communities, and more than 100 million Americans may have PFAS in their drinking water. Because PFAS are “forever chemicals” that never break down once released into the environment, they build up in our blood and organs. Virtually all Americans have PFAS in their blood, and about one-fourth of us have unsafe levels.
Major sources of contamination are PFAS-based firefighting foams, industrial discharge of PFAS into the air and water, and PFAS in food packaging and other everyday consumer products. Once released into the environment, PFAS chemicals enter our bodies through our food and drinking water, among other routes.
Despite the risks they pose, there are no legal limits on releases of PFAS chemicals or legal requirements to clean up legacy contamination.
Military and civilian firefighters continue to use PFAS firefighting foams that slowly seep into drinking water supplies. Because these foams have been used for decades, hundreds of military installations are contaminated. Manufacturers continue to discharge PFAS into the air and water. Nearly 500 facilities are suspected of releases of PFAS chemicals, but these manufacturers are not subject to any environmental or reporting requirements. Water utilities are not required to remove PFAS from our tap water — or even test for its presence.
Because PFAS have not yet been designated as “hazardous substances” under the federal Superfund law, PFAS manufacturers are not required to clean up legacy PFAS contamination — even though companies like 3M and DuPont knowingly released PFAS chemicals for decades. Internal company documents show that manufacturers knew of the risks PFAS chemicals posed to their own workers and neighboring communities, but failed to tell regulators.
As a result of ongoing and legacy PFAS pollution, millions of Americans face a heightened risk of testicular and kidney cancer and reproductive problems like preeclampsia. Nevertheless, President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense have refused to act. Last year, the Trump administration proposed a PFAS “action plan” that did nothing to address the growing contamination crisis.
Some big polluters that have released PFAS for decades, despite knowing the risks to workers and neighboring communities, are fighting congressional efforts to report, reduce and remediate PFAS pollution. But community leaders and key legislators are fighting back.
By the end of the summer, Congress will decide whether to finally address toxic PFAS pollution in the National Defense Authorization Act. Congress must get the message that it’s time to report, reduce and remediate toxic PFAS pollution.