PFASs, or “forever chemicals,” are a class of chemicals that have been polluting our environment for decades—we’ve written about them here and here. Despite some industries voluntarily retiring the use of some PFAS, they’ve simply been replaced by newer chemicals that have similar effects and harms to human health and the environment.
John Oliver even discussed PFAS in depth on a recent segment. (This video contains adult language and may not be appropriate for children).
But they’re making news again because they continue to be a threat to public health and the environment, and the federal government is finally talking about addressing these forever chemicals in a comprehensive new plan announced today. EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan announced a broad plan of action and roadmap with timelines over the next three years that set out to protect Americans and the environment from the harmful effects of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). In a statement from the White House, the comprehensive strategy that includes eight agencies is taking steps “to control PFAS at its sources, hold polluters accountable, ensure science-based decision making, and address the impacts on disadvantaged communities.”
In case you haven’t heard of them, these specific chemicals are called “forever chemicals” because they can take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to break down. They’re in everyday items, such as food packaging, non-stick cookware, and water-repellent outdoor gear, but more importantly, they can be in your drinking water.
And they are not benign. They have been linked to cancer, immune system disruption and a range of other health issues like increased cholesterol, birth defects, and a decreased vaccine response in children. These chemicals have contaminated drinking water supplies across the country, especially around military sites, where PFAS-ridden firefighter foam has been used on runways and seeped into local water supplies.
The roadmap announced by the EPA today is a broad, sweeping effort to tackle PFAS contamination with the 3 main goals: “research, restrict, and remediate.”
You can read the full roadmap with action items and timelines on the EPA’s website, but here are a few highlights of what’s in the plan:
- Develop a national testing strategy for PFAS that will help accelerate research and regulatory development
- EPA will propose to designate PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous substances” under the Superfund law (CERCLA), which will help to start to clean up some of the most contaminated sites across the country.
- Accelerate the establishment of a national primary drinking water regulation for PFOA and PFOS by 2023 that would set enforceable limits and require monitoring of public water supplies for these contaminants, along with other PFAS
- EPA will lose loopholes that currently allow companies to hide reporting of PFAS releases into the environment from the public and shirk cleanup responsibilities and costs
Here’s what still needs addressing:
- PFAS cleanup of communities surrounding Department of Defense installations. The plan outlines that the DOD is currently conducting “nearly 700 DOD installations and National Guard locations where PFAS were used or may have been released,” but these initial assessments won’t be completed until the end of 2023, and the EWG did a review of DOD records and found that the DOD was slow to respond to PFAS contamination and warn service members of the risks. Waiting until 2023 for initial assessments continues to leave military members and surrounding communities at risk.
- Under the plan, the FDA will expand its testing capabilities of PFAS of our general food supply, while also targeting seafood. However, the EWG encourages the FDA to ban PFAS from food packaging all together and suggests that existing results show that the FDA is misleading consumers about the PFAS in food.
- Although it is known that PFAS can be distributed by air and can then settle in soil and water, contaminating drinking water as it did in the case of the Chermours plant in in West Virginia, the EPA has acknowledged that more research still needs to be done to build a technological foundation to develop regulations on PFAS as air pollutants that pose a threat to public health.
- While the EPA is working to set limits on some chemical and industrial manufacturers, it still needs to collect more data in order to justify and set limits for other sectors, which will also take time.
This is a massive plan put forth with good intentions and in the right direction to curtail PFAS contamination, but it is only a first step, and we will need to move quickly to limit the harm PFAS contamination is already causing Americans and the environment. Additionally, there are always opportunities for these kinds of plans to go astray or take far longer than expected, whether due to bureaucratic red tape or industry interests, so be sure to watch this space and take action as a citizen when needed.
As always, we encourage you to stay educated and advocate for yourself, especially because regulations to protect our drinking water take time. If you’re not sure where to start, we’ve got you covered:
- Find reliable sources of information that you can trust. Two of our favorites are the Environmental Working Group, or EWG, and Scientific American. You can also come back here for unbiased, factual updates.
- Know what’s in your local tap water. Enter your zip code in the Is My Water Safe database to get a free tap water safety report.
- Call or write your representatives in Washington. Make it clear you support regulating levels of PFASs in drinking water. You can find your Representatives and Senators, and how to reach them here.
- Invest in a high-quality, multi-stage reverse osmosis water filtration system. A carbon-filtered pitcher is not enough for this. Look for one that is certified to NSF standards and can remove up to 97.5% of PFOS & PFOA from your drinking water, like AquaTru.