The EPA recently announced a new strategy to address ‘forever chemical’ cleanup in the US. They identified over 120,000 sites across the country that may expose people to these harmful toxins. Over time, these chemicals accumulate in the body and can lead to cancers and other health problems.
Since these contaminants don’t break down in the environment, they threaten animals, plants, and humans. The toxins pollute the air, water, and land and have been largely unregulated until recently. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a plan to ban these toxic chemicals and organize cleanup efforts.
This news comes only a day after the EPA released data on the industrial sites that handle these chemicals. Called PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, many industries utilize them to create products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. These include clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging, heat-resistant non-stick cooking surfaces, and electrical wire insulation. Because they’re costly and difficult to detect, environmentalists overlooked them until recently, when experts learned of their dangers.
The EPA compiled data on facilities handling PFAS to make it easier for officials to address chemical cleanup efforts. The recent report shows the far-reaching effects of PFAS – they impact nearly every part of the country. In addition to cancer, PFAS causes birth defects, liver disease, thyroid disorders, hormone disruption, and other severe health issues.
Colorado and Oklahoma have the most significant clusters of PFAS facilities – 21,400 and 12,000, respectively. California also houses 13,000 sites, but they also spread throughout the state. Industrial sectors that use PFAS include oil and gas, waste management, mining, chemical manufacturing, plastics, and landfill operations. They also use them in airports, metal coatings, and electronics.
EPA Creates New Guidelines for Forever Chemical Cleanup
EPA administrator Michael Regan said in a statement that underserved communities especially suffer from PFAS contamination. He added that the new strategy to address the chemical cleanup would help protect these communities and hold polluters accountable. The EPA plans to hold national webinars on October 26 and November 2 to discuss strategies with stakeholders.
The main goals of the plan include the following:
- “Aggressive” timelines to limit PFAS in drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure the safety of each community’s water supply;
- Timelines for establishing “effluent guideline limitations” for nine industrial categories;
- Establishing a hazardous substance designation under the federal Superfund law that allows governments more extraordinary ability to hold PFAS polluters financially accountable;
- A review of prior actions taken on PFAS regulations under the Toxic Substances Control Act to discuss inadequacies;
- Increased monitoring, data collection, and research so the EPA can identify which actions to take, and when;
- A final toxicity assessment for a group of PFAS called GenX used in manufacturing nonstick coatings that the EPA measured in drinking water, rainwater, and air samples;
- Ongoing efforts to address action on PFAS emissions into the air.
The agency also said it would boost investments related to PFAS research. In the American Jobs Plan, President Joe Biden called for over $10 billion in funding “to monitor and remediate PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in drinking water” along with other water system upgrades. The EPA says this new plan addresses the need for action on the long-overdue chemical cleanup.
However, experts in the field criticize the EPA, saying they’ve known about the dangers of PFAS for years. Dusty Horwitt, the author of a report on PFAS by the Physicians for Social Responsibility, says the agency learned of health hazards 20 years ago.
“The evidence that people could be unknowingly exposed to these extremely toxic chemicals through oil and gas operations is disturbing,” said Horwitt. “Considering the terrible history of pollution associated with PFAS, EPA and state governments need to move quickly to ensure that the public knows where these chemicals have been used and are protected from their impacts.”
The Public Versus the Chemical Industry
Of course, the American Chemical Council (ACC) stresses that the dangers of PFAS have been exaggerated. The organization asserts that many essential consumer products and industrial practices rely on PFAS. “PFAS is vital to enabling our lives in the 21st century,” they say.
They added that not all PFAS are created equal, and therefore, it isn’t scientifically accurate to make sweeping assumptions about them. PFAS chemicals consist of over 5,000 artificial compounds used for industrial purposes since the 1940s. The EPA says they have very little information about most of these chemicals. The ACC claims that health officials have already discontinued harmful PFAS in the United States.
Even still, as the years pass, it’s become clear that PFAS poses a more significant threat than the ACC admits. For example, a study by the non-profit Environmental Working Group found that over 200 million Americans could have dangerous levels of PFAS in their drinking water.
Potential Legal Ramifications of the Chemical Cleanup
Even more damning, some industries that use PFAS have known about their public health risks for decades. In the mid-2000s, lawyer Rob Bilott brought these chemicals into the public eye in a class-action settlement with DuPont.
The company had knowingly contaminated waters in West Virginia and Ohio with a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. Part of the settlement paid for a six-year health study, which found links between PFOA and many health problems, including cancer. Bilott sent the EPA copies of DuPont’s internal corporate documents, which showed they were well-aware of PFAS’ dangers.