Campaigners for tighter health limits on toxic PFAS chemicals are taking their fight to Congress where a committee last week approved a bill that would require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set regulations that it has so far avoided implementing.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee sent to the full House of Representatives a comprehensive bill that would direct the EPA to designate all per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals as hazardous substances under the federal law that governs the cleanup of Superfund sites, allowing it to place sites with PFAS contamination on a National Priority List.
Listing a chemical under the Superfund law will unlock resources for cleanup, and allow contaminated sites to be cleaned up and stop leaching the chemicals out into the environment, advocates say.
The bill would also require the agency to set a maximum level for total PFAS that safeguards human health, protect populations such as children and pregnant women who are at greatest risk, and direct manufacturers to send EPA data on volumes, uses and exposure of the chemicals.
The legislation was highlighted Tuesday by the committee’s chairman, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone. The Democrat, whose district spans Middlesex and Monmouth counties, said he wants the public to understand more about the extent of the chemicals in the environment and their potential health effects.
“Part of the problem is that people have never heard of PFAS, don’t know what it does,” Pallone said at a press conference in South Amboy. “Part of what we’re doing with this legislation and this press conference is to make people aware that this is a problem. It’s only relatively recently come to the public’s attention.”
The man-made chemicals, which have been used for decades in consumer products like nonstick cookware and flame-resistant carpets, have been linked to illnesses including immune-system problems, developmental difficulties for young children, high cholesterol and some cancers.
Although some PFAS chemicals were phased out by leading U.S. manufacturers over the last decade, they are still part of some imported products. They are found in drinking water, food packaging, consumer products like polishes and waxes, and living organisms including fish. They don’t break down in the environment, earning the label “forever chemicals.”
Less is known about new substitutes, such as GenX, but some scientists believe them to be just as toxic as the chemicals they are replacing. Scientists say that PFAS chemicals can be found in virtually every human being.
New Jersey, with more PFAS contamination than most states, has over the last five years become a national leader in setting enforceable health standards for some of the chemicals.
But advocates say the chemicals won’t be effectively curbed until they are regulated at the federal level, where the EPA has so far failed to set enforceable standards to protect public health.
Lawmaker, EPA exchange blows
Pallone accused the EPA of trying to hide the truth about PFAS from the public.
“The EPA under President Trump has attempted to block a lot of the reports that demonstrate the public health crisis with PFAS, and fought against legislation that would address it at the regulatory level,” he said. “The federal government hasn’t really done much about it even though New Jersey has in the last few years.”
Pallone accused the EPA of “not wanting people to know at all what’s going on, and that’s just unacceptable.”
An EPA spokesman said Pallone had inaccurately described the agency’s plan for curbing PFAS, which it announced in February.
“It is unfortunate that Congressman Pallone is mischaracterizing the EPA’s PFAS Action Plan — the most comprehensive cross-agency plan to address an emerging chemical ever taken by EPA,” the spokesman said in a statement. “EPA is letting the science dictate its regulatory process. In the past few weeks EPA has taken a number of actions in support of the PFAS action plan.”
Last year, advocates accused EPA of trying to block a report from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that called for much stricter health limits for two of the most widespread PFAS chemicals — PFOA (perfluorooctanic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) — than those recommended, but not required, by the EPA’s current health guidelines.
A look at the details
Pallone’s bill, the PFAS Action Act of 2019, would also require EPA to:
- Set a national primary drinking-water regulation for total PFAS, including a requirement that any such standard work to protect vulnerable populations such as infants, children, and pregnant women;
- Issue guidance for firefighters and other first responders to minimize the use of foam and other firefighting materials containing PFAS and to minimize their health risk from PFAS exposure;
- Add all PFAS chemicals to the list of hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act;
- Provide funding to states to assist affected community water systems in paying for the capital costs of installing eligible PFAS treatment technologies;
- Create a ‘Safer Choice’ label for pots, pans, and cooking utensils that do not contain PFAS.
The EPA said in February it will decide by the end of this year whether to begin the process of regulating PFOA and PFOS. Regulations for the substances have been proposed by New Jersey but the state Department of Environmental Protection has yet to officially adopt them.
The federal agency said its other actions on PFAS include:
- Proposing a rule that would allow public comment on a plan to include PFAS in the federal Toxic Release Inventory;
- Proposing that some of the chemicals cannot be manufactured in or imported to the United States without approval under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act;
- Proposing national drinking-water monitoring for PFAS.
Fed study in Gloucester ‘stalled’
But EPA plans won’t help until there are legally enforceable federal standards in place, argued Tracy Carluccio, a longtime campaigner for tighter PFAS standards, and deputy director of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network.
“Announcements that EPA is moving in that direction are only talk until it is law that PFAS compounds must be removed from drinking water and from the environment to protect the public health of all Americans,” Carluccio said. “There should be no hesitancy on EPA’s part to take this needed action, and there must be an announced hard and fast time line for adoption of these needed regulations.“
Dr. Robert Laumbach, associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health, blamed the persistence of PFAS chemicals on weak regulation. “We have a systemic societal problem in the form of lax chemical regulation,” he said at Pallone’s event.
He said plans for a federal study of PFAS exposure of 10,000 people in Gloucester County have been stalled by the federal Office of Management and Budget, and it’s unclear when the study can begin.
Even if government is not stepping up, some consumers are taking their own action on PFAS, said Amy Goldsmith, state director for Clean Water Action, a national environmental nonprofit that claims some 150,000 members in New Jersey.
One consumer group has persuaded the home-improvement chains Lowes and Home Depot to stop selling rugs treated with PFAS, and is pressing grocery stores to stop selling food that has packaging containing the chemicals, Goldsmith said.