The House of Representatives passed legislation on Friday that would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address PFAS contamination in a number of ways, including designating the chemicals as “hazardous substances” and introducing a national drinking water standard for PFAS.
PFAS is an acronym for man-made chemicals called per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances known for their resistance to grease, oil, water, and heat. They are used in a wide range of products including stain- and water-resistant fabrics and carpets, as well as cleaning products, paints, water repellents, and fire-fighting foams.
The bill, the PFAS Action Act of 2019 (H.R. 535), which passed the House 247-159, would require the EPA to list perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS)—two of the chemicals in the PFAS family—as “hazardous substances” within one year.
In doing so, as per the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA, also known as Superfund), sites contaminated with PFAS would be eligible to have federal resources clean the sites up through the EPA’s Superfund program.
H.R. 535 would also require the agency to decide whether to designate all PFAS substances as hazardous within five years.
Among other effects, the bill would also require the EPA to enforce a drinking water standard within two years for at least PFOA and PFOS. The agency in 2016 issued a health advisory for the two PFAS substances of 70 parts per trillion, however no measures are currently in place to enforce this standard, and public water systems are currently not required to test for PFAS.
The bill would also ban the manufacture or sale of PFAS chemicals that the EPA finds as posing “an unreasonable risk of injury” to human health or the environment.
The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a statement (pdf) on Tuesday, Jan. 7, saying that “the administration strongly opposes passage of H.R. 535,” and that if the bill was presented to President Donald Trump, “his senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill.”
“This bill would supersede existing statutory requirements that require EPA, when regulating chemicals in the environment, to evaluate and weigh the available scientific and technical information about the occurrence of exposures, the health effects of exposures, the treatment options available, the opportunities for meaningful improvement in public health protection, and the significant potential effects on public safety,” the statement read.
The OMB added that the bill would, therefore, “create considerable litigation risk, set problematic and unreasonable rulemaking timelines and precedents,” and impose “substantial, unwarranted” costs on governmental agencies.
House Republicans of the Energy and Commerce Committee released a statement on Thursday, saying that H.R. 535 “is not the solution” to PFAS’s potential challenges to public health and the environment.
“This purely partisan, anti-science regulatory framework is unworkable … There is a path ahead; we have broad, bipartisan, commonsense solutions—that relies on sound science—to address the country’s PFAS challenges,” the statement read.
There are close to 5,000 types of PFAS, according to the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees certain uses of PFAS including in cookware, food packaging, and food processing.
A number of PFAS chemicals “have been a concern because they do not break down in the environment, can move through soils and contaminate drinking water sources,” according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Because of this, PFAS chemicals are often commonly referred to as “forever chemicals.”
“People are mostly likely exposed by consuming PFAS-contaminated water or food,” the CDC says on its website, adding that PFAS can build up in fish and wildlife. “Exposure may also occur by using products that contain PFAS.”
The National Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences (NIEHS) says that PFAS chemicals gradually accumulate and generally remain in a body over time “due to more intake than excretion of the chemicals.”
While the CDC says that more research is needed to assess the health effects on humans of being exposed to PFAS, it also notes that studies where animals were given large amounts of PFAS show impacts to their growth and development, reproduction, thyroid function, the immune system, and the liver.
In May 2019, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute released their latest update of an interactive map that shares data on known PFAS-contaminated sites. The EWG says the map is the most comprehensive resource of its kind to track PFAS pollution in the United States.