“Protection”—the EPA’s Middle Name?

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment invited Erik to testify at a hearing today on how the Environmental Protection Agency is handling the challenge of PFAS contamination.

PFAS are the new PCBs, but they may be more widespread and dangerous.  They’re a class of chemicals—perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances—found in everything from drinking water, food packaging and clothing to carpets, cookware and cosmetics.  We’re exposed to them through household dust, indoor air, water and food. 

PFAS are everywhere, and they make people sick

You probably have PFAS in your body. 

Studies have found these chemicals in the blood or tissue of more than 98% of U.S. residents tested, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data.  As recently noted in Anna’s blog, this is a class of chemicals estimated to contain between 3,000 to 5,000 industrial chemicals, and new subclasses of PFAS are still being discovered in products and in the environment.

Just two of them—PFOA and PFOS—are present in 6 million Americans’ tap water at concentrations higher than EPA-established safety levels (the agency’s weak health advisory of 70 parts per trillion), according to a Harvard study.  That research found PFAS in the drinking water in at least 33 states. Tens of millions more U.S. residents likely are drinking water with PFAS levels higher than those considered safe by CDC and independent scientists (between 1 to 10 parts per trillion).

Even at extremely low levels – parts per trillion – they are toxic. They are “forever chemicals” that don’t break down.

Independent scientists and government experts have linked PFAS to a range of serious illnesses, including cancer of the kidneys and testicles, thyroid and liver disease, asthma, lower fertility in women, higher cholesterol, weakened immune systems, high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, and lower birth weights.  A series of in-depth investigative articles by journalist Sharon Lerner cites extensive evidence that manufactures have long known and hidden the risks of some of these chemicals, with reportedly devastating effects on communities.

Indeed, there are hundreds, or more likely thousands, of known or suspected PFAS contamination sites around the country, including over 400 military installations. Families are grappling with agonizing health problems.  Legitimate worries about their health hang like a cloud over their future.  This is happening in communities from Hoosick Falls, NY to Chanute Air Force Base in Champaign County, Illinois, to Parkersburg, WV, to Michigan to the Cape Fear River in NC. 

Local citizens of Hoosick Falls, NY have far higher levels of PFOA in their bodies than average Americans, an issue highlighted by the social media campaign showing children with high levels in their bodies.

Courtesy of the Albany Times Union, https://www.timesunion.com/tuplus-local/article/Top-Stories-2016-PFOA-wa...

The EPA is not protecting us from these dangerous chemicals

It is staggering to see the EPAs inaction on PFAS.  The agency has shown no urgency in responding to this public health and environmental threat.  Here is a glance at what the EPA has failed to do:

  • Meaningfully regulate the manufacture and use of PFAS;
  • Issue standards to protect our drinking water;
  • Prevent the spread of PFAS contamination; and,
  • Ensure contaminated sites are cleaned up.

Not only has EPA failed to take action, the agency has actively sought to suppress public information on the magnitude of this threat.  It worked with the White House to block release of a critical report by the CDC showing adverse effects of PFAS at far lower levels than EPA had admitted, after an internal White House email warned the report would pose a “public relations nightmare.”

The agency needs to do its job, and to operate free from political interference.

We can’t wait for EPA to do this job.

States must step into the breach immediately to issue strong standards to protect our health and to require cleanup and address the use of PFAS in firefighting foam and consumer products.

Erik's testimony here elaborates on NRDC’s other recommendations, such as:

  • Quickly issue lower drinking water health advisories and 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, with a comprehensive total PFAS standard issued soon thereafter;
  • Fixes to the Safe Water Drinking Act;
  • EPA and state requirements that “polluters pay” under Superfund and other laws;
  • Authorizing citizen legal actions for cleanup and medical monitoring;
  • A polluter-funded cleanup trust fund;
  • Additional funding for water systems to address PFAS contamination;
  • Action under the Clean Water Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to ensure we prevent future PFAS contamination;
  • Mandatory public right to know requirements to tell citizens where PFAS are being released into the environment;
  • Bipartisan legislation to hold the Department of Defense accountable for identifying and cleaning up its own PFAS contamination;
  • A ban on new uses of existing PFAS and on new PFAS under the Toxic Substances Control Act;
  • A phase out on existing uses established by EPA and states;
  • An FDA ban on PFAS as a food additive and in food packaging, among other recommendations.

About the Authors

Erik D. Olson

Senior Director, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Anna Reade

Staff Scientist, Healthy People & Thriving Communities program
Blog Post

NRDC's comments on how the CDC's toxicological report on PFAS can be even more protective of public health.

Blog Post

Here's a list of actions EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt should take to protect the public from toxic "Teflon" chemicals, but probably won't.

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.