The Environmental Protection Agency is making its most aggressive moves to regulate the so-called “forever chemicals” that pose potential health risks to Americans and are still being used in cosmetics, food packaging, cleaning supplies and household goods.
The push from President Joe Biden’s environmental watchdog follows earlier attempts by the agency under the Obama administration (when Biden was Vice President) to regulate polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl chemicals.
In 2016 the EPA established recommended, but unenforceable limits on PFAs in drinking water of 70 parts per trillion — a number which scientists at the time said was insufficient to protect the public, according to an article in The Washington Post.
Now, the EPA is beginning a fact-finding process with the goal of setting mandatory standards that would limit the amount of chemicals present in drinking water — and set penalties for water utilities that fail to meet those limits.
Exposure from PFAS have been linked to risks of infertility, cancer, and developmental disabilities in children, according to earlier EPA reports cited by The Washington Post.
The EPA is also ordering manufacturers to provide specific data around the compounds they produce and indicated that it could designate some of those chemicals as hazardous under the nation’s Superfund law, the Post reported.
The move is part of a multi-agency effort that includes the Department of Defense, Agriculture, Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration. All of them are researching and assessing the health implications of PFA usage and its prevalence in America’s food and water supplies.
PFAs crop up in everything from firefighting foams to nonstick cookware and water-repellent fabrics and steps to curb their usage will have billion-dollar consequences for landfills and sewage operations — and efforts to find more sustainable replacements.
While EPA Administrator Michael Regan told the Washington Post that the steps from his agency represented “a really bold set of actions for a big problem”, environmental advocates aren’t so sure.
“We’re hopeful they will be taking meaningful steps,” Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Post. “We’ll be keeping an eye out for the details. Because the details make a huge difference.”
Meanwhile, an organization called the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility lambasted the EPA’s plan.
“EPA is kicking the can down the road with this plan,” said PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, an attorney and scientist formerly with EPA, in a statement. “EPA appears incapable of taking the action necessary to protect the public from this health crisis.”
“This plan is a complete dud,” said Executive Director Tim Whitehouse of PEER. “The PFAS crisis is going to get much worse unless there are major course corrections far beyond EPA’s terribly timid plan.”
The problems with PFAS have even seeped into popular culture, most recently in the film “Dark Waters”, which dramatized the fight by environmental advocate Robert Bilott to get compensation for communities that had been exposed to PFAS.
Recent studies from Harvard and the University of Notre Dame indicate how ubiquitous the PFAS chemicals are. Around 6 million Americans drink water that contains unsafe levels of the chemicals. And many cosmetics in the US also contain the toxins, which show up in concealers, foundations, eyeliners, eyebrow pencils, lipliners and lipsticks.
“These results are particularly concerning when you consider the risk of exposure to the consumer combined with the size and scale of a multibillion-dollar industry that provides these products to millions of consumers daily,” Graham Peaslee, a physics professor and one of the study’s lead authors, said in a statement.
The move could spark more investment and innovation around green chemicals and chemistries that replace or degrade and decontaminate the toxic chemicals.
These are businesses like Allonia, a spinout from Ginkgo Bioworks*, which raised $60 million in financing from investors including Viking Global, General Atlantic and Battelle to develop biologically based waste remediation technologies, or the UK-based Puraffinity, which raised money from backers including the privately held chemical manufacturer, Heritage Group, to tackle the same problem.
Other companies, like Aquagga, are using hydrothermal technologies that break down PFAS into carbon dioxide and fluoride in a mineralization process. The company has actually raised half a million dollars from the EPA and the Air Force for its technology.
These companies may benefit from the fervor with which the current EPA is pursuing its new regulations. Unlike previous administrations where toothless standards were set or nebulous timeframes existed for enforcement, this time, the EPA is trying to establish firm deadlines.
Within two years the EPA intends to have a proposal for a national drinking water standard that includes limits on the “forever chemicals”, according to a Post interview with Assistant Administrator for water, Radhika Fox.
All of this will depend on continued oversight and a lasting commitment to protect the American public, as well as innovation that can replace the chemicals in products.
For his part, Bilott isn’t holding out too much hope.
“I hate to be cynical, but I’ve been seeing this for 20 years,” Bilott told the Post.
“It’s massively overdue. It’s decades overdue,” he said. “This is a huge public health threat, and it’s something that has just gone on way too long.”