The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to designate two of the most widely used PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the nation’s Superfund law, a move that would allow communities to learn more about the extent and locations of contamination sites and accelerate cleanup.
The proposed rule would designate PFOA and PFOS, two of thousands of PFAS chemicals, as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA.
If the rule is finalized, the designation would require facilities to report releases of one pound or more of PFOA and PFOS within a 24-hour period. The designation would also give the federal government more tools to address PFOA or PFOS contamination, including responding to releases without having to make “imminent and substantial danger” findings and requiring responsible parties to address the chemical releases and pay for cleanup costs.
“Communities have suffered far too long from exposure to these forever chemicals. The action announced today will improve transparency and advance EPA’s aggressive efforts to confront this pollution, as outlined in the Agency’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap,” said EPA administrator Michael Regan. “Under this proposed rule, EPA will both help protect communities from PFAS pollution and seek to hold polluters accountable for their actions.”
PFAS chemicals have been used since the 1940s to make products resistant to water, heat, grease and stains, including coatings for pans, firefighting foam and turnout gear, cosmetics, fast food packaging and many other products.
PFOA and PFOS are linked to a series of adverse health conditions, like increased risk of developing kidney or testicular cancer, damage to the liver and immune system, increased cholesterol levels, increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women and decreased vaccine response in children.
The chemicals do not break down naturally and can remain in the environment for a very long time. The chemicals also collect in the environment or in our bodies over time. PFAS chemicals can remain in the human body for at least five years.
PFAS chemicals, including PFOA and PFOS, have been found in water, air, fish and soil in locations all around the world.
Some studies indicate that most Americans, especially manufacturing workers, have been exposed to PFAS contamination.
The chemicals have been found in the treated water of four community water systems in the state, Indiana American Water – Charlestown, Rural Membership Water Corp. of Clark Co., North Manchester Water Dept. and Tennyson Water Utility.
Until about eight years ago, products like Teflon, Gore-Tex and Scotchgard were made using PFOA and PFOS. Those and other companies have since moved on to using other PFAS chemicals.
Both PFOA and PFOS were studied for decades by 3M, the Department of Defense, which purchased some of its firefighting foam from 3M, and companies that used the chemicals to produce its own products, like E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.
3M’s research found the chemicals posed a threat to the environment and wildlife. DoD research had similar results, with its PFOA and PFOS firefight foam data indicating damage to the environment and animal life.
A great amount of data on the effects of PFOA on humans comes as a result of a class action lawsuit launched by 80,000 private citizens in Ohio and West Virginia against DuPont and its offshoot company, Chemours Co. A dramatization of the case was featured in the movie Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway.
The C8 Health Project that came about as a result of a settlement in the case collected demographic data, medical diagnoses, lab testing and PFAS concentrations from over 69,000 people involved in the lawsuit.
States like Michigan and Minnesota have recently sued 3M Co., which created PFOA and PFOS in the 1950s, and companies who used the chemicals despite potentially endangering human health and the environment.
Environmental groups, like Earthjustice and Sierra Club, have praised the EPA’s decision as a positive first step, but said more PFAS chemicals should also have a hazardous substance designation.
“It is fair and necessary to hold polluters accountable for contaminating thousands of communities across the country, particularly because companies like 3M and Dupont did so knowingly, and with impunity. We are pleased that EPA is addressing the oldest and most infamous PFAS under the Superfund law,” said Christine Santillana, Earthjustice legislative representative. “We urge EPA to listen to the communities who have been impacted by PFAS, and not be deterred from finalizing this rule by irrational comments from the polluters who created this public health crisis.”
“We welcome this step from the EPA to address the legacy of PFOS and PFOA contamination in communities, military bases, and industrial sites around the country. Today’s action alone does not match the urgency of the problem. EPA must rapidly assess and add other PFAS chemicals to Superfund and the RCRA Hazardous Waste list. It must ensure PFAS waste is not transferred to marginalized communities who live near incinerators, landfills and injection wells. PFAS producers, not the public, should bear the cost of cleaning up contaminated sites.”
Thousands of PFAS chemicals exist, but only a few have been extensively studied. Some scientists have called for the chemicals to be regulated as a single chemical class instead of individually.
The EPA is also pursuing a limit on the amount of PFOA and PFOS chemicals that can be found in treated drinking water. The agency said it expects to develop a proposed National Drinking Water Regulation for the two chemicals by the end of the year.