The toxic chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a national crisis demanding action.
They’re found everywhere we look. They’re in the blood of virtually all Americans, including newborn babies. They persist forever in the environment. Ever-growing reams of studies link them to cancer, thyroid disease, weakened childhood immunity and other serious health problems.
Yet for two decades, federal regulators have dragged their feet on taking meaningful action to protect the public. In coming weeks, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release the first federal PFAS management plan. Here’s what it should do.
- Find out where they’re coming from. Adding PFAS chemicals to the Toxic Release Inventory would disclose who is releasing them into our air and water, and polluters should be required to tell neighboring communities.
- Find out where they already are. Requiring utilities and regulators to monitor for PFAS in drinking water, air, and food, and improving the tools to measure contamination, would help us understand the extent of the crisis. We should also conduct body burden testing, medical monitoring, and health impact studies of people near PFAS contamination, especially military families.
- Stop approving new PFAS chemicals. An estimated 5,000 PFAS chemicals are in use, so there’s no reason for the EPA or Food and Drug Administration to let any more on the market. EPA should also finalize a rule that would require companies to get EPA approval before using some kinds of PFAS chemicals.
- Stop adding more PFAS chemicals to the environment. PFAS should be banned from consumer products, including cookware, food packaging, cosmetics and clothing. They should also be banned from firefighting foam, especially foam used at civilian airports and in training exercises. It should be illegal for manufacturers to discharge toxic PFAS chemicals into our air and water.
- Add PFAS to Superfund cleanup law. Classifying PFAS as a hazardous substance under Superfund will help communities begin to clean up contaminated sites. And EPA should make sure PFAS chemicals are properly disposed.
- Set a legally enforceable limit for PFAS in tap water. More than 1,500 drinking water systems serving more than 110 million Americans may be contaminated with PFAS chemicals at levels scientists say is harmful. Setting a legal limit, known as a maximum contaminant level, will require utilities to treat tap water to remove or lower PFAS contamination. States should also set their own legal limits. If, as reported, the EPA fails to start the process to establish a maximum contaminant level for PFAS in drinking water, state action will be especially important.
- Direct the military to quickly clean up contaminated bases. Pentagon data shows that at least 36 military installations have on-base drinking water contamination that exceeds the EPA’s health advisory for the PFAS chemicals formerly used to make DuPont’s Teflon and 3M’s Scotchgard. The Department of Defense has identified 401 military installations with known or potential contamination.
- Make polluters pay their fair share. Many of the companies that manufactured or used PFAS understood the risks to human health but failed to protect workers or nearby residents. Adding PFAS to Superfund will ensure that polluters pay. Polluters should also be responsible for taking back and safely disposing of their PFAS products, like firefighting foams. But other measures, such as a clean-up trust fund, should be created, and Americans impacted by PFAS pollution should be allowed to take action through the courts.
Will President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency do what’s needed to address this growing contamination crisis? On the basis of the agency’s history of inaction, we’re skeptical.
So it’s good news that states aren’t waiting to make PFAS a priority. At least 13 states will consider bills, ranging from more PFAS disclosure to bans on PFAS in food packaging, firefighting foam, and flame retardants. Some members of Congress are also introducing bills to expand PFAS monitoring, to ban some PFAS uses, and to set tough cleanup standards, among other priorities.