The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday announced what it’s calling a “strategic road map” to tackle PFAS.
Known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t naturally break down, some have been linked to cancer, birth defects, decreased immunity, and other serious health problems. PFAS have been detected in water sources nationwide, notably near current or former military bases.
The agency said the three-year plan would prevent this class of toxic chemicals from being released into the environment and speed up the cleanup process.
EPA regulates 90 contaminants in drinking water, but not PFAS.
“For far too long, families across America – especially those in underserved communities – have suffered from PFAS in their water, their air, or in the land their children play on,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “This comprehensive, national PFAS strategy will deliver protections to people who are hurting, by advancing bold and concrete actions that address the full life cycle of these chemicals. Let there be no doubt that EPA is listening, we have your back, and we are laser-focused on protecting people from pollution and holding polluters accountable.”
Included in the road map is a plan to hold polluters financially accountable, increase monitoring and data collection, aggressive timelines to set enforceable limits on the amount of PFAS in water, and an audit of past actions to address PFAS pollution.
“EPA is certainly taking a much more comprehensive approach than any administration in the past at the federal level,” said Tracy Carluccio of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “It engages many federal agencies and it has a lot of potential to address the problems.”
But she and others are not satisfied with the timeline of the plan.
“People are being exposed to drinking water that could have adverse health effects, and many people don’t even know it. They’re drinking water that’s contaminated, and the more they drink water that’s contaminated, the greater their risk is of developing diseases correlated with those chemicals,” Carluccio said. “We have so much that we know about PFOA and PFAS, we don’t see any excuse for not acting on that immediately.”
Maria Payan of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project in Delaware agrees.
“Right now there is no restriction as far as PFAS from entering the air, land and water. Until permits are denied because of it — or there’s a mechanism, or some type of moratorium until research is completed — public health will be impacted until we work towards the steps of the action plan,” she said.
“I am very grateful they are working on an action plan, because this is something affecting so many areas. The goal is there, but how long is that goal going to take, to get there? What can we do right now to proactively prevent PFAS from entering land, air, and water?”
EPA proposes to designate certain PFAS as CERCLA hazardous substances, but advocate Hope Grosse, co-founder of the National PFAS Contamination Coalition, is concerned that it won’t be comprehensive enough.
“We know there’s thousands of PFAS” and many cause health problems, she said. She also wants to see more efforts to prevent industry from creating new ones.
“There’s unanswered questions in that plan. It seems like they are serious, and it seems like they took a lot of time preparing this plan, but we haven’t seen any action yet, ever, so hopefully we will,” Grosse said.
“I’m hoping this administration can pull this off. Can they pull this off? I don’t know. I feel like industry has been against us all along the way, and there have been a lot of roadblocks and a lot of non-transparency … I want to be hopeful, but I’ve also seen how things haven’t happened in the past 10 years.”
Carluccio said she would also like to see more attention placed on health assessments and blood sampling where PFAS has been discharged.
“If a woman is of childbearing age and she’s going to be getting pregnant, she’s going to want to know … because we know that certain PFAS compounds can negatively impact the development of a fetus,” she said.
Carluccio also would like EPA to take a more proactive approach to targeting replacement compounds. Chemical companies are developing replacements for some PFAS chemicals, but some scientists and regulators are concerned the new chemicals may be just as toxic as those they replace.
“Toxic compounds are being released into the environment and again exposing the same communities that are already burned with PFAS compounds in the first place,” Carluccio said.
She also calls for a blanket ban on PFAS chemicals.
The environmental advocates say they are pleased that the EPA will set drinking water standards, and applaud the efforts to set up a national testing standard and to restrict and remediate pollution.
“If they follow through and are diligent in prosecuting the polluters, then this broader testing strategy will be very beneficial to the public,” Carluccio said.
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.