A federal agency released recommendations on Wednesday on how to protect the public from a class of chemicals that are linked to a range of illnesses, including some cancers, immune system problems, decreased fertility, and thyroid disease.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry published long-awaited health standards on 14 chemicals in the PFAS family, also known as PFCs or perfluoroalkalyls. For two of the chemicals, the report advocates limits that are much stricter than those recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency, and more stringent than levels currently being implemented by New Jersey, a national leader in regulating the chemicals.
ATSDR, a unit of the Department of Health and Human Services, has been under pressure from public-health advocates and some lawmakers to release the study following media reports that publication had been blocked by the White House and the EPA because of wide differences between the two sets of recommendations.
For the chemical PFOS, ATSDR is recommending a “minimum risk level” from all sources that is 10 times stricter than the EPA’s health guideline. For PFOA, ATSDR’s recommendation is about one-seventh of what the EPA says is safe for human consumption, the document shows. The EPA did not respond to a request for comment.
In the absence of federal regulation, the new ATSDR standards could be used by state and local authorities to set their own rules, advocates said.
Identifying new link to ill health
ATSDR’s 852-page study said there is growing evidence of a link between PFAS chemicals and ill health, and that most studies focus on PFOA and PFOS.
“A large number of epidemiology studies have evaluated possible associations between perfluoroalkyl exposure and a wide range of adverse health outcomes,” it said.
In New Jersey, the two chemicals are being subjected to “maximum contaminant levels,” a measure of their concentration in drinking water, which are not as strict as the drinking-water levels implied by the new ATSDR standards.
The manmade chemicals were used in consumer products including nonstick cookware and flame-resistant fabrics, and have been phased out by U.S. manufacturers but persist at high levels in some locations such as Paulsboro, where the chemical manufacturer Solvay used them until 2010.
They have also been found at levels exceeding EPA guidelines in the Warrington/Warminster area of Bucks County, PA, where they were used in fire-fighting foams on military bases — as they have been at many other military facilities across the United States.
Tough state regulations
The chemicals are not regulated by the federal government, but have been subject to increasingly tough limits by state officials responding to growing evidence of risks to public health.
Any decision to regulate the chemicals at the federal level would have to be made by the EPA, which would use the ATSDR report in its evaluation, advocates said. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said during a recent EPA summit that the agency will look at whether the chemicals need to be subject to federal rules.
Minimum risk levels are estimates of the amount of a chemical that a person can eat, drink, or breathe each day without a detectable risk to health, the ATSDR said. If health officials find human exposures are occurring at levels above the MRL, they may want to investigate further but that does not mean people will become sick from those exposures.
The MRLs and the EPA’s health advisories, which apply to drinking water, can be used together to build up a more complete picture of the health risks of a chemical, the agency said in a statement late Wednesday.
Pennsylvania does not have its own standards, but follows the EPA’s recommendations on the chemicals in drinking water.
The new report should prompt Pennsylvania officials to take a fresh look at whether the EPA guidelines really protect public health, said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania director for the environmental group Clean Water Action.
“We would like to see Pennsylvania DEP reevaluate whether there are more people at risk than they previously understood,” Arnowitt said. The DEP did not respond to a request for comment.
Withheld from the public?
Arnowitt said the report’s publication appears to reflect widespread criticism, including from some Republican lawmakers, that a scientific report was being withheld from the public.
“It’s not every day under the Trump administration that science gets to win out, and we are glad to see it happen,” he said. “The idea of withholding information was becoming more and more unpalatable to more and more people, and I think there was an understanding within the federal government that this was not good policy.”
According to internal EPA emails obtained in April by the Union of Concerned Scientists, officials in the EPA and the White House feared a “public relations nightmare” if they had to explain a wide difference between the standards in the ATSDR report — which was at that time unpublished — and the EPA’s levels. News reports based on the emails prompted calls by U.S. lawmakers, including Pennsylvania Republican Brian Fitzpatrick and New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone, for the report’s release.
Tracy Carluccio of Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a Pennsylvania-based environmental group that advocates for tighter limits on PFOA and PFOS, said the ATSDR’s limits would support water standards that are close to those proposed by her group but are well below EPA levels.
“It is clear that EPA’s Health Advisory Level for PFOA and PFOS does not reflect these minimum risk levels, which they now must ratchet downward, and does support strict drinking-water standards,” she said.
The chemicals are “ubiquitous” in the environment, are easily absorbed orally or through inhalation, and are not metabolized by humans or laboratory animals, the study said.
Human health effects include pregnancy-induced hypertension, liver damage, elevated cholesterol, increased risk of thyroid disease, and decreased fertility. There is also evidence of increased rates of kidney and testicular cancer among highly exposed humans, it said.
Some of the highest levels of PFAS contamination have been found in Washington, WV, where the mean level of PFOA in 2004-2005 was more than 100 times higher than that of the U.S. population as a whole.
Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based research group that advocates for tighter national limits on the chemicals, said the ATSDR report shows the EPA’s guidelines “woefully underestimate” risks to human health.
But it welcomed the report as a move toward greater protection of the public.
“This is certainly a move in the right direction, based on the scientific evidence,” said Olga Naidenko, a senior science advisor for EWG. “ATSDR is now ahead of EPA by seven- to ten-fold. EWG does believe that the totally safe number is even lower than what ATSDR said but we are very grateful to ATSDR for taking leadership on this important issue.”