For years, scientists and environmental activists have been pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to strictly regulate the family of fluorinated chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These chemicals have been infiltrating soil and groundwater in locations across the country.
The EPA finally took the first step in April, releasing draft interim regulations designed to provide the initial regulatory guidelines for addressing these potentially dangerous chemicals. Chemical regulations require an involved process and the EPA is still a long way from finalizing any new restrictions.
However, environmental groups were dismayed by the details of these recommendations, as the thresholds recommended by EPA were far less stringent than activists hoped. In fact, the EPA’s proposed benchmarks for PFAS were higher than those set by several states.
These groups are calling on the public to make their concerns known during the EPA’s public comment period, which extends until June 10. Meanwhile, scientists have their work cut out for them in studying the danger of this nearly ubiquitous class of chemicals.
What Are PFAS?
“PFAS” is an umbrella term referring to a group of thousands of different chemicals that exist within the same family. They are exceptionally popular and can be found in a massive range of products. Because these chemicals are resistant to water and stains and have impressive non-stick properties, they are a crucial component of carpeting, non-stick cookware, furniture, food packaging and firefighting foam – PFAS are particularly popular with the military, which uses them for a range of purposes at a number of military bases spread across the world.
Due to this popularity, PFAS can be found in soil and groundwater across the country. Almost every American has some level of these chemicals inside their blood. Scientists, however, are growing concerned about what that might mean for our health and well-being.
There remain a host of important unanswered questions regarding the danger level of these chemicals. PFAS are often referred to as “forever chemicals” since they don’t break down easily. This ensures they stay in soil and groundwater – and even the human body – far longer than most chemicals.
Because this family of chemicals is so vast, studies of them have been slow going. However, early studies – many conducted as part of a lawsuit related to PFAS exposure in Ohio and West Virginia – have found a link between long-term exposure to the chemicals and serious health problems, including kidney cancer and thyroid disease.
The research is still in its early stages. Scientists are studying, among other things, how these chemicals move in the human body.
Activists anxiously awaited the EPA’s interim draft standards, which represent the first step in a much longer process of regulating PFAS. They were disappointed when the standards were released.
The EPA recommended a screening level of 40 parts per trillion – a “screening level” is a threshold which necessitates further investigation at a given site. The threshold for a groundwater site cleanup would be 70 parts per trillion.
The EPA’s recommendations came in much higher than the levels proposed by several states currently undergoing PFAS crises. Michigan, New York, New Jersey, California, Minnesota, Vermont and Massachusetts have all proposed lower thresholds for the chemicals affected by the EPA recommendations.
This prompted the National Resources Defense Council to argue that the “EPA has failed to carry out its duty….”
The Trump Administration’s EPA has made it a point of pride to disappoint environmental activists with its regulatory decisions. Public comment on the PFAS proposal will be open until June 10. Environmental groups plan to submit strongly critical comments and have urged citizens to do the same.