The PFAS Crisis: Will the EPA Act?

The agency has an opportunity to protect the public from this group of highly toxic chemicals found in drinking water, cookware, food packaging, and other everyday items.
Credit: Urban Zone/Alamy

The agency has an opportunity to protect the public from this group of highly toxic chemicals found in drinking water, cookware, food packaging, and other everyday items.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will issue its “PFAS management plan” tomorrow. PFAS, or poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, are a widely used large class of highly toxic chemicals.

This is an opportunity for the agency to prove its worth and make sure that we’re protected from these dangerous contaminants, which are present at unsafe levels in the drinking water of millions of people, as well as in our food packaging, cookware, and much more. They are linked to all kinds of harmful health effects (outlined below). But given the makeup of the EPA's current management—and the recent purging of so many scientists and knowledgeable officials—let’s say we’re not too optimistic.

In a presentation at the EPA Summit on PFAS last May and in a testimony delivered to a House committee last September, NRDC made a series of recommendations for what the EPA should do.

NRDC Lawyer explains the dangers of PFAS chemicals

Americans need urgent protection against a dangerous class of toxic chemicals, known as PFAS, found in everything from our drinking water, food packaging and cookware. PFAS have been linked to a wide array of effects ranging from kidney and testicular cancer to impacts on the immune system and thyroid, adverse effects on fetal development, and many other harms. NRDC is calling for the EPA and state governments to step up. Learn more:

Posted by NRDC on Wednesday, September 26, 2018

In Summary, the EPA’s PFAS Management Plan Should:

Figure out where PFAS pollution is and tell the public.

  • Expand monitoring of PFAS in tap water. The EPA should issue an Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule requiring that all currently detectable PFAS be tested for and the results publicly reported. At minimum, this should include the 18 PFAS detected by the agency's current method. In addition, total PFAS present should be estimated using the TOP assay or other methods.
  • Work with the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor groundwater and surface water for PFAS.
  • Require PFAS manufacturers and processors, such as DuPont, the Chemours Company, and 3M, to report use and releases under the Toxic Release Inventory. We need mandatory public right to know requirements to tell citizens where PFAS are (or were) being made, used by industry, and released into the environment.

Protect people against continued exposure.

  • Quickly issue strong health-protective tap water standards for PFOA, PFOS, and for other key PFAS for which there are data in hand, based on science showing effects at far lower levels than previously admitted. Ultimately, Congress needs to fix the broken Safe Drinking Water Act to make it feasible and mandatory for the EPA to protect the public from dangerous chemicals like PFAS.
  • Issue a comprehensive total PFAS tap water standard issued soon thereafter.
  • Establish requirements under the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) to ensure that continued PFAS pollution is eliminated.

Turn off the PFAS spigot.

  • Use the Toxic Substances Control Act to put a moratorium on approval of new PFAS and block new uses of PFAS.
  • Phase out existing PFAS uses.

Make polluters clean up their messes.

  • The EPA should list PFAS under Superfund and RCRA to ensure that polluters pay under Superfund and other laws. Congress should also reauthorize the Superfund fee and trust fund.
  • Authorize citizen legal actions for cleanup and medical monitoring.
  • The Department of Defense should be required to identify and clean up its own PFAS contamination.

More on the Dangers of PFAS

Just two members of this class of toxic chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, are known to be present in the drinking water of at least six million people’s drinking water at levels exceeding the EPA’s unenforceable health advisory limit. Communities across the nation serving tens of millions of Americans likely have PFAS in drinking water at levels as much as hundreds of times higher than what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and independent scientists consider safe—a level far lower than what the EPA has stated is acceptable.

Even at low levels, PFAS have been linked to a range of serious illnesses, including cancer of the kidneys and testicles, and thyroid and liver disease. Studies have also shown that PFAS cause lower fertility in women; harm to developing fetuses, infants and children; higher cholesterol; and weakened immune systems. 

PFAS are used in nonstick cookware, food packaging, clothing, carpets, cosmetics, and aqueous firefighting foam. PFAS do not break down easily and spread quickly in the environment—and as a result, are found in our drinking water, air, food, and homes. There are at least 4,700 PFAS chemicals in the class that have been cleared for use.

The EPA Should Act Swiftly

Despite being well aware of the dangers of these chemicals for years, the manufacturers of PFAS did not tell people. The chemicals have spread across the planet, and they now contaminate the drinking water of millions of Americans. They’re found in the blood of virtually every one of us. Now the folks who caused this pollution don’t want to clean up their own mess—and want to make even more. And that’s just for starters.

The EPA should act swiftly to protect the public from further harm.