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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced new drinking water advisories for four "forever chemicals" on June 15, 2022. (Photo: Bart/Flickr/cc)

'Tip of the Iceberg': Groups Tell EPA Much More Needed on Toxic Forever Chemicals

Environmentalists praised "baby steps" to address PFAS but say legally binding standards are urgently needed so "everyone can have confidence that their drinking water is safe."

Jessica Corbett

While applauding the Biden administration's new "baby steps" to address "forever chemicals" in drinking water, green groups this week also emphasized that far more sweeping action is needed to protect people and the planet.

"The EPA needs to go much further by implementing strong, enforceable regulations on the entire class of PFAS chemicals."

"This is a step in the right direction," said Stel Bailey, co-facilitator of the National PFAS Contamination Coalition, welcoming that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally "had the courage to follow the science, something we've been demanding for years."

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are widely called forever chemicals because they persist in the human body and environment for prolonged periods of time. They are used in everything from firefighting foam and food packaging to nonstick pans to water-resistant fabrics.

PFAS are also linked tied to health issues—such as cancers and damage to immune and reproductive systems—prompting some states to take action. However, the federal government has yet to make any major moves to regulate the substances.

"People on the frontlines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long," EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Wednesday. "That's why EPA is taking aggressive action as part of a whole-of-government approach to prevent these chemicals from entering the environment and to help protect concerned families from this pervasive challenge."

The EPA released lifetime drinking water health advisories for common PFAS—lowering the levels for PFOA and PFOS as well as establishing new guidance for GenX and PFBS. The levels in parts per trillion are now 0.004 for PFOA; 0.02 for PFOS; 10 for GenX; and 2,000 for PFBS.

Along with the advisories, Reagan announced a new grant program, explaining that thanks to the bipartisan infrastructure legislation that President Joe Biden signed last year, "we are also investing $1 billion to reduce PFAS and other emerging contaminants in drinking water."

Consumer Reports and The Guardian last year tested drinking water at 120 locations across the United States for arsenic, lead, PFAS, and found forever chemicals in 117 samples. As Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist at the group, put it Wednesday: "Toxic PFAS chemicals are everywhere, including in the drinking water we rely on every day."

"This is a major victory for science and represents an important first step to ensure everyone has access to safe drinking water," he said of the advisories. "Now it's up to the EPA to adopt legally binding standards so that everyone can have confidence that their drinking water is safe."

A 2021 analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found PFOA and PFOS above the new levels in the drinking water of 2,013 U.S. communities serving over 43 million people.

"No one should have to worry about the safety of their drinking water," Melanie Benesh, EWG's legislative attorney, said Wednesday. "These proposed advisory levels demonstrate that we must move much faster to dramatically reduce exposures to these toxic chemicals."

"The EPA must move quickly to set limits on industrial discharges of PFAS into the air and water, require testing for sludge that may be contaminated with PFAS, immediately designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under our federal cleanup laws, and properly dispose of PFAS wastes," she asserted.

Mary Grant, director of Food & Water Watch’s Public Water for All Campaign, also called on the federal government to go further.

"This modest action by the EPA to warn communities of the harm caused by these four specific chemicals is good, but it only represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of adequately acknowledging and mitigating the hazards posed by the thousands of highly toxic variants existing in the PFAS 'forever chemical’ family," Grant declared.

"The EPA needs to go much further by implementing strong, enforceable regulations on the entire class of PFAS chemicals that are sickening communities around the country as we speak," she said, adding that the 2021 infrastructure law "provided a down payment on what needs to be a continuing stream of adequate funding to properly address the drinking water crisis facing our country."

Erik D. Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the new advisories reflect the "robust science" that "these chemicals are shockingly toxic at extremely low doses" and "will send a welcome signal that government and industry must do more to protect public health."

"EPA has had to continuously fight polluters and opponents of any meaningful action on PFAS. But we cannot continue taking a 'whack-a-mole' approach to the ever-expanding avalanche of 12,000 PFAS chemicals," Olson argued. "It's time to regulate all PFAS with enforceable standards as a single class of chemicals. Any other approach will leave every one of us at risk from these forever toxics for decades to come."

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility executive director Tim Whitehouse, a former EPA enforcement attorney, similarly warned against a chemical-by-chemical approach.

"EPA should be congratulated on today's actions, but those kudos should be tempered by the knowledge that these are just four of thousands of these toxic substances," he said. "Health advisories are a long way from enforceable limits and an even much longer way to actual cleanups where these substances are finally removed from our waters, soil, and food chain."

"Since EPA does not appear to be ready to regulate all PFAS as a class, it may be condemned to playing a futile game of regulatory whack-a-mole for generations to come," he added. "Further, EPA's failure to regulate PFAS wastes makes containing contamination almost impossible."


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