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After Approval by House Democrats, GOP-Controlled Senate Urged to Pass Measure to Curtail Toxic 'Forever Chemicals'

The legislation would require the federal government to test for health effects of PFAS.

Two children drinking water outdoors.

"The Senate must pass the PFAS Action Act of 2019, without any weakening amendments. Our country deserves clean water. Nothing less," said Food & Water Action's Mary Grant. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Public health advocates urged the U.S. Senate to pass legislation regarding so-called "forever chemicals" after the measure's passage Friday in the House.

The bipartisan PFAS Action Act of 2019, which addresses per-and polyfluorinated substances known as PFAS, passed in a 247-159 vote, largely along party lines.

PFAS chemicals—used to give products nonstick and heat-resistant properties—have been linked to numerous adverse health effects including kidney disease and cancer. They've also been implicated in a "contamination crisis." According to Environmental Working Group (EWG), PFAS contamination affects over 600 sites in 43 states, including public water systems.

The measure from lead sponsor Rep. Dingell, Debbie (D-Mich.), as the Detroit Free Press summed up, would

  • Require PFAS be listed as hazardous substances under the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund program within a year.
  • Require the EPA set a drinking water standard that would force agencies to react if it were violated. Currently, there is a standard of 70 parts per trillion used to advise water systems but it does not require enforcement.
  • Require the federal government to test for health effects of PFAS.

MarketWatch also reported Friday:

If a "hazardous substances" designation becomes a reality, companies like 3M, DuPont DD, and Chemours CC, "could be on the hook for billions of dollars in cleanup fees," analysts at Beacon Policy Advisors said in a note on Thursday. In a similar vein, Height's analysts said the PFAS Action Act "would increase liabilities for PFAS manufacturers like 3M and Chemours, while benefiting water remediation companies like Evoqua AQUA."

The White House said in statement (pdf) Tuesday that President Donald Trump would veto the bill if it reaches his desk. A number of advocacy groups, meanwhile, welcomed Friday's development.

"We applaud the House of Representatives for taking action on PFAS toxic chemical pollution; it has been a long-time coming," said Food & Water Action Public Water for All campaign director Mary Grant. "There is no wiggle room when it comes to enacting a thorough plan to remove these chemicals from our drinking water with enforceable regulations and ensure the biggest polluters are held accountable for cleaning up the worst contamination."

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“As more and more communities suffer the health consequences of exposure to these highly toxic chemicals in the water they drink, the food they eat, and the furniture in their homes, Congress is getting a clear message that they must take action," said Safer Chemicals Healthy Families director Liz Hitchcock. 

According to EWG senior vice president for government affairs Scott Faber, the legislation has the power to force action on an issue the Environmental Protection Agency has been dragging its feet. "EPA's failure to protect us from PFAS has become legendary," he said.

"If EPA will not do its job, it's up to Congress to do its job," said Faber.

That means the upper chamber needs to do right by the American public, said Food & Water Action's Grant.

"The Senate must not compromise when it comes to protecting Americans from the possibility of cancer-causing chemicals in their water. The Senate must pass the PFAS Action Act of 2019, without any weakening amendments. Our country deserves clean water. Nothing less," she said.

Dingell, for her part, said in a statement Friday that the act's passage in the House marks "a beginning, but this won't help communities or people unless it's passed by the Senate and signed into law by the president."

"We all must work together to protect human health and our environment," she continued. "Further inaction only means more people continue to be poisoned and contamination spreads further."

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