Throughout the first half of 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced several actions in pursuit of the goals it laid out in its PFAS Strategic Roadmap — the blueprint it released last October outlining plans for addressing widespread PFAS contamination in the United States.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a group of more than 9,000 synthetic chemicals that pose serious risks to human health, including increased blood pressure and cholesterol levels, abnormal liver function, decreased birth weights, and certain cancers. Exposure to even extremely low levels of certain PFAS are unsafe for humans.
For most people, the primary source of PFAS exposure is drinking water contaminated by industrial discharge and runoff of PFAS-containing foam used by firefighters and members of the military. Through a comprehensive analysis of state and federal reports, the Environmental Working Group found PFAS contaminates thousands of water systems across all 50 states, and PFAS contamination likely affects upward of 200 million Americans, disproportionately impacting low-income communities and communities of color.
Despite the links to serious health conditions, PFAS are also added to countless industrial and consumer products because they are water-, oil-, and heat-resistant. PFAS exposure can come from everyday activities like wearing water-repellant outdoor gear, using nonstick cookware, eating fast food packaged in grease-resistant containers, or applying cosmetics.
Put simply: PFAS are everywhere. They're also incredibly durable and do not degrade naturally, so the chemicals accumulate indefinitely in soil, water, and food — and inside our bodies. Frighteningly, nearly all U.S. adults have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood.
As the nation's chief environmental regulatory body, EPA is responsible for protecting the public from these toxic "forever chemicals." The Biden administration's EPA has demonstrated its current commitment to addressing PFAS and is taking action. Most recently, it released drinking water advisories for four of the worst PFAS chemicals on June 15.
But EPA health advisories are unenforceable, are not regulations, and are only intended to provide technical guidance to state and municipal public health officials. The most current research establishes that any level of PFOS and PFOA — two of the most common and well-understood PFAS compounds — in drinking water is unsafe for humans, so these advisories are only an early step in addressing PFAS contamination.
Meanwhile, EPA's strategic plan is falling behind schedule: Ten proposed actions that were intended for completion by this past spring are still pending or overdue. Further, dozens of measures in the plan have no deadline, leaving them susceptible to being swept aside when political pressures and agency priorities change.
To protect the public, Congress must require timely action on PFAS contamination. Affected communities need transparent and enforceable deadlines for federal action on PFAS. Indeed, statutorily imposed responses to the PFAS crisis are the firmest way to ensure needed regulatory protections.
The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 (NDAA) contains several provisions addressing contamination on military bases in the United States. The NDAA – which became law in December 2021 – requires PFAS inspection and testing of all military installations in the United States identified as having known or potential PFAS releases and allocates over $515 million for Department of Defense (DOD) PFAS environmental remediation operations.
A key difference between the final NDAA and the original version passed by the House, however, highlights the need for enforceable discharge and drinking water regulations. The unenacted House version of the act would have required DOD PFAS response actions to meet or exceed EPA health advisory levels, even in the absence of other federal standards. The final NDAA does not contain such a requirement.
Members of Congress have introduced several bills to get PFAS contamination under control.
Rep. Debbie Dingle's (D-Mich.) PFAS Action Act of 2021, which passed the House with bipartisan support, would require the EPA to issue a national primary drinking water regulation for PFOA and PFAS within two years of the passage of the act and, within one year of the act's passage, to categorize PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, or Superfund).
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's (D-N.Y.) Clean Water Standards for PFAS 2.0 Act of 2022 would require the EPA to establish effluent limitations for PFAS discharge caused by nine priority industries.
Additionally, Sen. Susan Collins's (R-Me.) No PFAS in Cosmetics Act and Sen. Maggie Hassan's (D-N.H.) Keep Food Containers Safe from PFAS Act of 2021 would address Americans' extensive PFAS exposure by prohibiting intentionally added PFAS in everyday consumer products.
Currently, these bills are sitting in committee, but the bipartisan support for Dingle's PFAS Action Act and the PFAS-related provisions in the NDAA indicate that legislation addressing the PFAS crisis may be achievable, despite the past decade of congressional gridlock.
Importantly, legislative action would create enforceable standards for PFAS in drinking water, industrial discharge, and consumer products — a much-needed step beyond the EPA health advisories. Advocacy organizations are working with partners in the U.S. Senate to pass the PFAS Action Act. Communities across the country have suffered from the harmful impacts of PFAS production for decades, and Congress must respond with a bold, resolute strategy for management and remediation.
Absent legislation from Congress, advocates for safe drinking water and consumer products must keep up the pressure on the Biden EPA to ensure PFAS contamination remains a federal priority and the agency continues pursuing the regulatory efforts described in its strategic plan.