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EPA Is Abandoning Those Suffering From Toxic PFAS Pollution

Even as the scientific case for regulation grows clearer and more urgent every year, the EPA under President Trump delays and obfuscates.

PFAS do not break down in the environment and bioaccumulate in the food chain. They are associated with birth defects and developmental damage to infants, the liver, kidneys and immune system, as well as cancer risk. (Photo: Getty)

PFAS do not break down in the environment and bioaccumulate in the food chain. They are associated with birth defects and developmental damage to infants, the liver, kidneys and immune system, as well as cancer risk. (Photo: Getty)

A year ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) promised Congressional leaders that, after years of stalling, it would finally move forward on regulation of two notorious “forever chemicals,” PFOA and PFOS. The notice that eventually appeared in the Federal Register on March 10, 2020, however, is not a regulation; it is merely a proposal to consider regulation. Worse, the timeline it sets out pushes actual regulation off for as long as five more years — if it happens at all.

This marks the latest in a decades-long string of failures by EPA to protect Americans from these dangerous chemicals. Even as the scientific case for regulation grows clearer and more urgent every year, the EPA under President Trump delays and obfuscates.

PFOA and PFOS are the oldest of a class of synthetic per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals known collectively as PFAS. Over 5,000 variations of PFAS are currently used in the manufacture of consumer goods including cookware, flame-retardants, waterproofing, furniture and take-out containers. 

The Environmental Working Group estimates up to 110 million people could be drinking water with PFAS in it.

PFAS do not break down in the environment and bioaccumulate in the food chain. They are associated with birth defects and developmental damage to infants, the liver, kidneys and immune system, as well as cancer risk. Perhaps most importantly given the coronavirus pandemic, many PFAS cause an impaired response to infectious disease and can cause fewer antibodies to develop after vaccinations. Research from Harvard University indicates that more than 6 million Americans drink water contaminated with PFAS, and the EPA itself reports that PFOA and PFOS have been detected in almost all Americans’ blood. The Environmental Working Group estimates up to 110 million people could be drinking water with PFAS in it.

Nonetheless, the EPA has dragged its feet on regulating PFAS. Industry voluntarily began phasing out the original “long-chain” PFAS, starting with PFOS in 2002 and PFOA by 2015. It set a non-binding “lifetime health advisory” for drinking water contaminated with PFOA and PFOS in 2016, near the end of the Obama administration. 

Meanwhile, the more numerous and less-studied “short-chain” PFAS continue to proliferate. Indeed, the EPA has approved new versions without testing their safety and never finalized key toxicity studies. 

On Feb. 14, 2019, the EPA issued a PFAS Action Plan that promised the establishment of a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. The EPA promised it would propose a regulatory determination under the Safe Drinking Water Act by the end of that year and said it was “also gathering and evaluating information to determine if a SDWA [Safe Drinking Water Act] regulation is appropriate for a broader class of PFAS.”

The Federal Register notice that appeared more than a year later, however, shows EPA is actually proposing only to consider developing regulations for PFOA and PFOS, and merely continuing to gather information on other PFAS chemicals. 

The nearly five-year regulatory timeline it describes makes it abundantly clear that EPA has no intention of protecting Americans from PFAS contamination as long as President Trump is in office. 

Trump’s EPA has taken only one definite action on PFAS, proposing to restrict imported products containing PFOA and PFOS. However, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) recently released documents that show the White House has worked to create glaring loopholes in this proposal so that many products containing PFOA and PFOS could enter the U.S. 

Several bills introduced in Congress have tried to force the EPA to do its job, only to earn a veto threat from President Trump. 

Finally this year, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 added 172 PFAS chemicals to the Toxic Release Inventory, which requires reporting by facilities that manufacture or process chemicals included on the list. 

But reporting is not enough. The Environmental Working Group estimates that at least 2,500 industrial facilities across the U.S. could be discharging PFAS into the air and water. 

In Massachusetts, a municipal wastewater treatment plant accepted PFAS-laden leachate waste from a New Hampshire landfill, which then proceeded to legally dump it into the Merrimack River under a federal permit. The Merrimack provides drinking water to over 500,000 people. The treatment plant stopped accepting the landfill leachate after PEER exposed it in the Boston Globe.

Some states have begun filling the regulatory void, but many PFAS-contaminated sites are the result of Department of Defense (DoD) pollution and DoD is refusing to comply with state clean-up laws and standards. For example, at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, the State was forced to sue DoD, but the Air Force continues to ignore the state environmental laws. 

While the number of sites with PFAS contamination continues to grow, Trump’s EPA continues to do nothing to address this toxic mess. 

Kyla Bennett

Kyla Bennett, Ph.D, JD, is PEER’s director of Science Policy and New England director. 

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