The Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday it would start working by the end of the year on a plan to set drinking water limits on a class of highly toxic chemicals. Known as PFAS, poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, they are associated with a wide range of negative health effects, including cancer and birth defects. For years environmental groups have pushed the EPA to regulate the chemicals and were largely disappointed by today's announcement, saying the EPA is moving too slowly. Congressional democrats and state officials also criticized the agency's move.
“This is a non-action plan, designed to delay effective regulation of these dangerous chemicals in our drinking water,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, in a statement.
Erik Olson, senior director for Health and Food at the Natural Resources Defense Council likewise expressed frustration:
“Has the Trump administration so thoroughly purged 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? While the agency fumbles with this ‘mis-management plan,’ millions of people will be exposed to highly toxic PFAS from drinking contaminated water. As a guardian of public health, Administrator Andrew Wheeler should revisit this embarrassing decision. With EPA asleep at the wheel, it’s up to states, citizens, and public-minded companies to take action.”
Politicians and environmentalists are ratcheting up the pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency to take the first step in regulating drinking water contaminated with a toxic, long-lasting family of chemicals called PFAS or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The agency has not yet announced what steps it will take. A plan that was supposed to be released by late last year has been held up for months, with no official timeline of when the action plan will be announced.
"The EPA is trying to walk away from its responsibilities," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told Newsday. "To take a carcinogenic chemical like PFOS and PFOA and say we are not going to pay attention to that when we have learned that it is in many more locations than you would think ... makes no sense whatsoever."
Meanwhile, California says it will soon announce its own plan to deal with PFAS in drinking water, a step environmental advocates have long pushed for.
PFAS chemicals are found in a diverse array of products: from non-stick pans and waterproof ski-gloves, to firefighting foams and food packaging. The chemicals have gone largely unregulated, at both the state and federal level, since they were first produced in the 1940s.
The corporate giant 3M originally produced and sold two of the most well-known PFAS chemicals — PFOS and PFOA— both of which the EPA is considering regulating. In recent years 3M has been been hit with a slew of lawsuits over PFAS contamination. That's brought attention to the health impacts and environmental dangers linked to the chemicals.
Even though major companies, like 3M, have stopped producing PFOA and PFOS in the US, those are just two of thousands of chemicals in the PFAS class that have the same toxic properties, says Amy Kyle, a retired UC Berkeley Public Health researcher and professor. "They're not even the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg for what’s out there," says Kyle.
How Much is Too Much?
The level at which PFAS chemicals become harmful to human health is still largely unknown. Regulatory agencies can't seem to agree, either. The EPA lists a drinking water health advisory level at 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFAS, while another federal agency, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reports a safe limit for PFAS in drinking water at 11 ppt and 7 ppt, respectively. In a independent study, Harvard scientists report that 1 ppt is a low health risk level.
“With chemicals like this, there may not be a truly safe amount,” Kyle says. "They seem to react with various systems in the body.”
PFAS contaminants have been linked to cancer, birth defects, developmental disorders, decreased immunity, increased cholesterol and infertility. The National Institute of Health found PFAS compounds in the blood of over 98 percent of the population.
It's unclear if replacement chemicals used in lieu of PFOS and PFOA are any less harmful, either. Many of these compounds are still within the PFAS family, which is thousands of members strong, and their health effects have been sparsely studied. And the list of products and waterways the toxic family is found in continues to grow.
Chemicals That Keep Going, And Going
The flame-resistant, grease-repellent and waterproof properties of PFAS chemicals that make them attractive to manufacturers are also what make the chemicals so persistent in the environment.
"The defining feature of PFAS chemicals are carbon fluorine bonds, which are incredibly strong, so they don’t degrade in our environment," says Reade.
These same properties are why companies continue to use PFAS chemicals to coat carpets and clothes.
The unrelenting contaminants are also soluble, spreading easily into rivers, oceans and groundwater.
"Chemicals that are super persistent, are not usually this soluble," says Jane Williams executive director of California Communities Against Toxics. "It's a confluence of these two chemical characteristics that make this class of chemicals so dangerous for public health and the environment."
PFAS contamination is especially persistent at airports and military bases, where fire fighting foams have been and continued to be used, frequently.
In the Bay Area, the chemicals have been found at Treasure Island and Alameda Naval Bases. EPA also detected PFAS compounds in tap water in Pleasanton.
At Alameda Naval Base, the Environmental Working Group reports PFAS chemicals present in water at 336,000 parts per trillion. That's over 30,000 times greater than the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's safety threshold for PFAS.
California Weighs Action
In California, the State Water Resources Control Board asks water providers to voluntarily measure their supply for the chemicals. The state board says they will come out with a plan on how they might regulate PFAS chemicals in the state in next month.
Under the current system, districts that choose to monitor PFAS chemicals must report to the city and their customers if the supply is contaminated at levels exceeding a "notification level" — which is 13 ppt for PFOS and 14 ppt for PFOA. If their water supply exceeds a higher "response level" the water must be cleaned up, or cut off, Darren Polhemus says, deputy director of the Division of Drinking Water.
Even if a drinking water standard is enacted by the federal EPA for PFOS and PFOA, environmentalists are concerned the standard still won't protect human health.
"Our state is going to have to define its own destiny when it comes to these chemicals," Williams says. "Clearly relying on the US EPA to protect Californians to exposure from chemicals, has not worked."
Politico has reported the EPA is unlikely to enact the long-expected drinking water standards for PFAS (a report the agency has disputed). Meanwhile, Senator Chuck Schumer has publicly pressed for standards to be enacted.
Since monitoring of PFAS hasn't been required in California, the picture of how widespread the contamination is in the state is just emerging. Since so far California has only tested for 14 of the thousands of possible PFAS chemicals in water, it’s unclear how long it will take to characterize the extent of these new legacy pollutants.