EPA Delays Action—Again—on Toxic PFAS Chemicals

This ubiquitous class of chemicals is already present in millions of Americans’ drinking water.

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just kicked the can down the road again on regulating a class of toxic chemicals known as PFAS, which is already contaminating millions of Americans’ drinking water. A long-awaited management plan released by the agency today says it will propose a regulatory determination on PFAS sometime this year—a far cry from the protections called for by public health organizations like NRDC. In practice, today’s decision by the EPA pushes enforceable standards, if they come at all, five to ten years down the line.

“Has the Trump administration so thoroughly purged the EPA of scientists and so completely stacked its management with industry lobbyists that it can’t even decide whether to lift a finger to regulate widely known toxic chemicals?” says Erik Olson, senior director for Health & Food at NRDC. “While the agency fumbles with this ‘mis-management plan,’ millions of people will be exposed to highly toxic PFAS from drinking contaminated water.”

PFAS chemicals—or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances—are extremely common, found in everything from food packaging and cookware to fabric and cosmetics. In fact, they are so common that they’ve made their way into our bodies. In a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), PFAS chemicals were present in 98 percent of participants’ bodies. This has significant consequences for human health: PFAS exposure has been linked to various forms of cancer, hormone malfunction, liver and thyroid problems, weakened immune systems, and abnormal fetal development.

Two specific types of PFAS—called PFOA and PFOS—have been found at levels exceeding the EPA’s (unenforceable) health advisory limit in drinking water that serves at least six million people. And tens of millions of others across the country are likely drinking water that contains PFAS at levels as much as hundreds of times higher than what independent scientists and the CDC consider to be safe.

In the past, NRDC petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban three of the worst PFAS from food uses, which was granted by the agency in early 2016. But there are no rules that ban other PFAS from being used and no rules requiring manufacturers to disclose their use to consumers. Last year, NRDC presented a series of recommendations both to the EPA and a House committee on the best road forward for dealing with PFAS, which included stronger protections and more testing.

There are currently at least 4,700 PFAS chemicals that have been cleared for use by the EPA. “As a guardian of public health, Administrator Andrew Wheeler should revisit this embarrassing decision,” Olson says, “With the EPA asleep at the wheel, it’s up to states, citizens, and public-minded companies to take action.”

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