The Road to PFAS-Free Drinking Water

The Road to PFAS-Free Drinking Water

The News

The PFAS Action Act of 2019, H.R. 535, a bill that would require the Pentagon to work with communities to cleanup contamination from PFAS, was passed by the House last week. The bill passed 247-159, with 24 Republicans in favor. The PFAS Action Act would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to declare two types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as hazardous and would help in aiding the removal of toxic, chemical substances from drinking water supplies across the country.

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluoroactanesulfonic acid (PFOS), the key ingredients of aqueous film-forming foams used by the U.S. military for firefighting, would be labeled as toxic substances if the bill is enacted. As such, areas contaminated with these substances would subsequently become Superfund Sites and move up the ladder in terms of priority cleanup.

Action Items

The bill would also create maximum allowable drinking water levels for both PFOA and PFOS and establish stricter guidelines for the use of firefighting foams containing the hazardous substances. Currently, there is no maximum contaminant level for PFAS chemicals, however, the EPA has enforced a non-mandatory health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for the sum of PFOA and PFOS.

So far, the Pentagon has identified 401 active and former military and National Guard sites where PFOA and PFOS use has been detected. Additionally, five to 10 million people across the country may be exposed to water contaminated with PFAS. These chemicals have been linked to testicular and kidney cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, birth defects and high blood pressure in pregnant women.

Future Concerns

While the bill has passed the House, there may still be resistance in the Senate due to the significant scope and cost of the contamination cleanup. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the PFAS Action Act of 2019 would cost at least $300 million in the next decade, but could be much higher given that it would obligate the federal government to mitigate contamination on former federal properties that have since become state, local or privately owned.

Another foreseeable concern that surfaced from the White House just two days before the vote noted that the bill would overstep the EPA’s authority surrounding the issue. The EPA currently has an Action Plan in place to address PFAS and protect public health.

Looking Ahead

On the contrary, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an advocacy organization pushing for stricter controls over PFAS, is hopeful that the bill will be passed. Scott Faber, senior vice president of governmental affairs for the EWG stated that “it’s time for Congress to set meaningful deadlines for the EPA.” In doing such, he added, “the PFAS Action Act will immediately designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances, which will kickstart the clean-up process at contaminated sites.”

As this bill continues to play out in Washington, 2020 presidential candidates are also taking stands to address the PFAS issues and crack down on these chemicals if elected. In the absence of federal regulations, individual states are also implementing their own efforts to clean up contaminated drinking water and prevent future contamination from PFAS.

PFAS to be Classified as Hazardous Substances Under New Bipartisan Senate Bill

PFAS to be Classified as Hazardous Substances Under New Bipartisan Senate Bill

The PFAS Action Act

A bipartisan senate bill was introduced on March 1 to mandate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classify Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) as hazardous substances eligible for cleanup under the Superfund toxics law, a massive step in efforts to eliminate widespread contamination by these compounds across the country. Under the PFAS Action Act of 2019, legislation would require responsible parties to report the excess release of PFAS into the environment and allow the government to sue polluters to recover the costs of cleanup.

Scott Faber, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) said that “this proposal could assist potentially hundreds of communities throughout the country struggling with PFAS contamination by securing the resources required to begin the cleanup process and holding polluters accountable.”

What are PFAS?

PFAS are manmade chemicals that have been used in both industry and consumer products since the 1950s.  The most common products that PFAS are used in include:

  • Non-stick cookware
  • Products that resist grease, water and oil
  • Water-repellant clothing
  • Stain resistant fabrics
  • Firefighting foams
  • Some cosmetics


Exposure to PFAS can happen through a variety of ways including:

  • Drinking contaminated municipal water or private well water
  • Eating fish caught from a source that was contaminated with PFAS
  • Swallowing contaminated soil or dust
  • Eating food that was packaged in material containing PFAS
  • Using consumer products including the ones listed above

As PFAS are produced and used, they can migrate into soil and water inducing hugely detrimental effects on the environment, people, and animals. While scientists are still learning about the health effects to exposure of PFAS, some studies show that PFAS exposure may affect:

  • Growth
  • Learning
  • Behavior of infants and children
  • The ability to get pregnant
  • Natural hormones in the body
  • Cholesterol levels
  • Immune system
  • Risk of cancer

 

Why is the PFAS Action Act of 2019 Necessary?

Tests performed by the EPA have detected PFAS pollution of public water supplies for 16 million Americans in 33 states, a statistic that is considered a severe underestimate of the scope of the problem. EWG and researchers at Boston’s Northeastern University have tracked 172 PFAS contamination sites in 40 states – a number that does not include public water systems with PFAS contamination. In May 2018, EWG released a data analysis that estimated more than 1,500 drinking water systems, serving up to 110 million Americans, may be contaminated with similar fluorinated chemicals.

The map below from EWG and SSEHRI at Northeastern University shows contamination sites and EPA tap water detections. Click here to view an interactive version of this map. The blue circles show where PFAS chemicals were detected between 2013 and 2016 in public drinking water systems, and the red circles show sites in Northeastern’s PFAS Contamination Site Tracker.

Should this bill be enacted into law, these 1,500 contaminated drinking water systems across the country would soon be cleaned up as part both short-term and long-term actions included in the Action Plan, potentially resulting in clean water supplies and safe drinking water.

PFAS Action Act – Action Items

The EPA is leading the national effort to understand PFAS and reduce risks to the public through implementation of this Action Plan and through active engagement and partnership with other federal agencies, states, tribes, industry groups, associations, local communities, and the public.

Key actions to PFAS related challenges include:

  • Expanding toxicity information for PFAS
  • Developing new tools to characterize PFAS in the environment
  • Evaluating cleanup approaches
  • Developing guidance to facilitate the cleanup of contaminated groundwater
  • Using enforcement tools to address PFAS exposure in the environment
  • Using legal tools such as those in the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to prevent future PFAS contamination
  • Addressing PFAS in drinking water using regulatory and other tools
  • Developing new tools and materials to communicate about PFAS

(See all priority actions, short-term actions, and long-term actions here.)

1ewg.org
2shaheen.senate.gov
3epa.org
4atsdr.cdc.gov
5michigan.gov