The Biden administration released a roadmap for setting the national strategy for addressing a family of man-made “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, but both critics and the administration itself said the plan is “not enough” to fully address the chemicals’ threat.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan announced the “PFAS Strategic Roadmap,” a plan that describes the EPA’s planned actions on PFAS chemicals until the end of 2024.
PFAS chemicals have been used since the 1940s to make products resistant to water, oil, grease and stains, including firefighting foam, pots and pans, clothing, food packaging, cosmetics and cleaning supplies.
The chemicals have been linked to an increased risk of developing kidney and testicular cancer, increased cholesterol levels, increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia and decreased vaccine response in children.
PFAS chemicals are persistent, meaning they do not break down, and they accumulate in the human body and the environment.
The EPA roadmap lays out the actions each of the agency’s departments will take and the date by which the action is expected to be completed.
“For far too long, families across America – especially those in underserved communities – have suffered from PFAS in their water, their air, or in the land their children play on,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “This comprehensive, national PFAS strategy will deliver protections to people who are hurting, by advancing bold and concrete actions that address the full lifecycle of these chemicals. Let there be no doubt that EPA is listening, we have your back, and we are laser focused on protecting people from pollution and holding polluters accountable.”
According to the roadmap, by the end of this year the EPA will publish a national PFAS testing strategy, publish the final toxicity assessment for GenX and five other PFAS chemicals and undertake nationwide monitoring for PFAS in drinking water.
Biden’s second year in office will be a major year for PFAS regulation, with multiple plans to limit current and future discharges of the chemicals.
The EPA plans to publish health advisories for GenX and another PFAS chemical, PFBS, and propose designating certain PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the Superfund law. The agency will also propose national drinking water regulations for PFOA and PFOS and include limits for PFAS discharge as part of its National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permitting for industries.
“Each of these actions on their own are important, but the cumulative impact is far greater than the sum of its parts. This is a strategic alignment and an acceleration of EPA research, regulation and enforcement that finally addresses the full lifecycle of these chemicals,” said Regan.
The American Chemistry Council, the trade group that represents chemical manufacturers, said it would work with the EPA.
“The American Chemistry Council supports the strong, science-based regulation of chemicals, including PFAS substances. But all PFAS are not the same, and they should not all be regulated the same way. EPA’s Roadmap reinforces the differences between these chemistries and that they should not all be grouped together. We hope and expect any federal actions will be consistent with sound science,” the council said in a press release.
Some environmental groups called the EPA’s plan “a good start” that could result in major changes over time.
“We thank Administrator Regan for taking good steps forward in curtailing PFAS contamination, as millions of Americans are drinking and breathing PFAS every day while the chemical industry pollutes air, land and water with impunity,” wrote Christine Santillana, legislative counsel for Earthjustice. “This is long overdue. But EPA must move faster to set deadlines and expand regulations to stop the approval of new PFAS. It must also address incineration and stop industrial discharges. No one should be facing cancer because of the water they drink, the air they breathe, or the products they buy.”
“EPA’s actions on PFAS today highlight that it is becoming a 21st century organization willing to make long-term financial and administrative commitments that will lower impacts, enhance investments, and begin the long process of dismantling sacrifice zones across our country,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation.
Other environmental groups criticized the agency’s plan, saying it promised future regulatory limits on only a handful of thousands of PFAS chemicals.
“This plan is a complete dud,” said Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “The PFAS crisis is going to get much worse unless there are major course corrections far beyond EPA’s terribly timid plan.”
The Biden administration roadmap is similar to a much-touted EPA PFAS Action Plan released during the Trump administration. The plan had limited short- and long-term goals for PFAS regulation with general timeframes for their completion. The plan met with limited success by the end of the Trump administration.
The roadmap plan relies on actions taken by the executive branch of government, actions that can be undone by future administrations with differing agendas.
Regan admits that permanent action on PFAS will require a larger effort across the government.
“Despite the depleted resources and overstretched staff at EPA, this year, my team has done more in eight months to address this issue than the previous administration did in 48 months. And let me be clear, these actions, they're critical, but they're not enough. And that's why I'm grateful for my colleagues in Congress for developing much needed bipartisan legislation to confront this problem head on,” Regan said.
The U.S. House of Representatives in August passed the PFAS Action Act of 2021, a wide-ranging bill that would make some of the PFAS regulations included in the EPA’s roadmap federal law. All of Indiana’s Republican representatives voted against the bill.
“This legislation drastically restricts the availability of life-saving medical devices, limits safety systems in automobiles and airplanes, and places an all-consuming burden on the EPA which limits its ability to focus on other pressing issues that fall under its purview and will likely result in costly lawsuits,” Baird told the Indiana Environmental Reporter.
Experts in Indiana said firefighting foam used to fight chemical fires, not medical devices, were the main source of PFAS in the state.
“They’re talking about miniscule amounts compared to what we’re using now to treat food packaging,” said Graham Peaslee, physics professor at the University of Notre Dame. “We're getting [PFAS] mostly from what we drink and what we eat. Our exposure is coming from drinking water, and drinking water is being impacted most heavily in this country by [aqueous film forming foam] and [alcohol resistant-AFFF], which are coming from any sort of air force base or military base, or, often, municipal fire departments.”
The Department of Defense found 698 installations worldwide where AFFF was discharged, potentially affecting local water sources. According to the DoD, 13 of those are located in Indiana. Traces of the chemicals were found, although no surrounding drinking water sources were found to have elevated levels of the chemicals.
The Indiana Legislature in 2020 passed a law that prohibited the use of firefighting foams containing PFAS during training, unless the facility was able to prevent the release of the chemical into the environment.
Peaslee’s research has also found that firefighter turnout gear, the protective equipment firefighters wear when fighting fires, sheds PFAS chemicals, potentially contaminating the person wearing the equipment and the environment around them.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management is currently undertaking a two-year project to monitor community public water systems for PFAS. The first round of results, a sampling of water systems serving between 3,300 and 10,000 people, is expected later this year.