Senate Should Retain PFAS Provisions in Defense Bill

Thanks to many Congressional House members, including Representatives Dan Kildee, Debbie Dingell, Andy Levin and Chairman Adam Smith, for including important health-protective Amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). One provision, the Dingell-Kildee amendment, in the House NDAA, which includes PFAS as “hazardous substances” under the Superfund law (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, CERCLA). This important provision would address PFAS as a class of deeply dangerous substances, to help ensure that we can manage the crisis. It would make major polluters accountable for their actions, which will deter further contamination. It also provides resources to help communities clean up contamination inflicted upon them. It passed the House, and now conferees must retain this important provision in the final bill.

From L to R: Rep Dingell (D-MI); Jennifer Sass (front, NRDC); Bart Johnsen-Harris (Environment America); Scott Faber (EWG); Rep Levin (D-MI); Rep Kildee (D-MI)

Scientists have learned that PFAS tend to share three problematic properties:

  • They are highly persistent “forever chemicals” – they don’t break down easily.  They can accumulate in our bodies and the food we eat;
  • They are highly mobile - spreading quickly in the environment.  And detectable in our drinking water, air, food, our homes, and in more than 98 percent of Americans;
  • PFAS are harmful at extremely low doses (in the low part per trillion levels).

These highly toxic chemicals are in everything from nonstick cookware, food packaging, clothing, carpets, furniture, cosmetics, and dental floss.  The military uses firefighting foams that contain PFAS, which has contaminated communities.

Just two members of this class of toxic chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, are present in the tap water of at least 6 million Americans at levels in excess of EPA’s weak and unenforceable ‘health advisory” for those chemicals, according to a Harvard study.

These chemicals are posing a national public health crisis. Certain PFAS exposures are linked to elevated health risks, according to studies of real-world exposures in people (CDC/ATSDR 2019):

  • Adversely affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and children;
  • Lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant;
  • Interfere with the body’s natural hormones;
  • Increase cholesterol levels;
  • Affect the immune system; and
  • Increase the risk for some cancers.

PFAS exposure before birth or in early childhood has been associated with decreased birth weight, kidney toxicity, and immune system dysfunction.

Infants can be exposed through contaminated breast milk or infant formula contaminated by PFAS-containing food packaging or prepared with contaminated drinking water.

States are waking up to the seriousness of the problem.  For example, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey and several other states are taking action to crack down on PFAS contamination—but the federal government is long overdue to protect the public from these toxic chemicals.(see more from my colleague NRDC expert Anna Reade here and here)

We need to move beyond assessing this group of chemicals one by one.  And here’s why:

  • There are thousands of these chemicals
  • They don’t occur alone – they are often mixed together
  • They often target the same biological systems within our bodies
  • Assessing them separately may underestimate the harms of exposure

And we don’t want a ‘whack-a-mole’ approach, where we regulate one and it is replaced with another dangerous PFAS, rendering that regulation ineffective.

  • Many of the shorter-chain PFAS like “GenX” that have been touted as substitutes for PFOA and PFOS have been tested be toxic in the same range as PFOA and PFOS (parts per trillion levels in water)—see NRDC expert Anna Reade’s blog here; and
  • If we wait until we have a mountain of evidence for each PFAS before we regulate, it will be thousands of years before we address the problem since there are more than 4,700 of them.
  • The 2014 Helsingør and 2015 Madrid Statements, based upon extensive reviews of the scientific literature, provided consensus from more than 200 scientists on the potential for harm associated with the entire class of PFAS.

We urge the Senate to support the key PFAS provisions in the House bill and to retain this important measure that would include PFAS under the Superfund law. We also urge the conferees to include other important PFAS protections in the final NDAA (see the letter from a bipartisan group of over 160 House members urging inclusion of these measures), and to include provisions in the Senate bill that would ensure that toxic releases of PFAS are disclosed, and that PFAS are monitored in drinking water. These measures will help bring the PFAS health crisis under control.  

You don’t need to be able to pronounce “per-“ and “polyfluoroalkyl substances” to get smart about how to protect people from them.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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