“This is a really bold set of actions for a big problem,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said, even as some advocates remain wary.
In 2016 the Obama administration put in place a recommended, but unenforceable, health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion for certain PFAS chemicals in drinking water — a level that scientists have said is insufficient to protect public health. Once mandatory standards come into effect — which will take years — local water utilities will face penalties if they fail to meet them.
EPA also will require manufacturers to provide detailed data about entire classes of compounds they produce, and plans to designate some of them as hazardous chemicals under the nation’s Superfund law.
The Defense Department announced Monday that it will finish initial assessments of possible PFAS contamination stemming from nearly 700 of its installations by 2023. And the Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments, as well as the Food and Drug Administration, are researching the chemicals’ health effects.
The new actions could have profound implications for public health, given that the thousands of PFAS chemicals are used in many things from specialized firefighting foams on military bases and airports to consumer products such as nonstick cookware and water-repellent fabrics.
“This is a really bold set of actions for a big problem,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in an interview. “This strategy really lays out a series of concrete and ambitious actions to protect people. There are concrete steps that we are taking that move this issue forward in a very aggressive way.”
Should the EPA ultimately classify some of these chemicals as hazardous — a move it said would “strengthen the ability to hold polluters financially accountable” — it could affect landfills and sewage operations throughout the country. The agency has never regulated a hazardous pollutant on such a broad scale.
The agency will also review past actions taken on the chemicals to determine whether they “are insufficiently protective,” the EPA said in a statement.
‘Not a problem you can run away from’: Communities confront the threat of unregulated chemicals in their drinking water
The durability of PFAS gives them tremendous commercial value, but over decades the chemicals have leached into Americans’ soil, water, food and even blood — potentially harming people’s health in the process.
Peer-reviewed studies show that exposure to PFAS at certain levels can lead to infertility risks, thyroid disease, certain types of cancers, and developmental problems in children, according to the EPA.
One indication of how widespread the problem is came in a 2016 study, in which Harvard University researchers found that drinking water supplies serving more than 6 million Americans contain unsafe levels of the industrial chemicals.
“Virtually all Americans are exposed to these compounds,” Xindi Hu, the study’s lead author, told The Washington Post at the time. “They never break down. Once they are released into the environment, they are there.”
A study by the University of Notre Dame released in June found that many cosmetics sold in the United States contain high levels of the toxins. It was in “concealers, foundations, eye and eyebrow products and various lip products,” the study found.
“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.