Feb 15, 2021 - Health

Biden's presidency could mean action on toxic "forever chemicals"

President Biden at the White House on Jan. 29.

President Biden at the White House on Jan. 29. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Industrial "forever chemicals" found in hundreds of consumer goods and linked to adverse health effects may face new regulations under the Biden administration.

Why it matters: Environmental groups and members of Congress are calling on President Biden to follow through with his promise to designate the long-ignored and largely unregulated synthetic chemicals, which can last for hundreds of years without breaking down, as hazardous substances.

  • They're also calling for him to set enforceable limits for the chemicals in the Safe Drinking Water Act and to fund toxicity research on them.

How they work: Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — dubbed "forever chemicals" for their durability — are a family of nearly 5,000 types of chemicals that resist degradation by repelling oil and water and withstanding high temperatures.

  • They are commonly found in nonstick, water-repellent and fire-resistant products, including cookware, and some food packaging.
  • Because of their strength, PFAS can remain in the environment while accumulating in fish, wildlife and humans.

Of note: There are currently no national drinking water standards for PFAS nor specific federal mandates for its continual testing in drinking water systems.

What they're saying: "The EPA has broad authority under the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act and other laws to aggressively regulate PFAS, and it will be important for this administration to bring all of that authority to bear on this problem," Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz, staff attorney with Earthjustice's Toxic Exposure & Health program, told Axios.

  • The Union of Concerned Scientists recently urged Biden to not only carry out his promises but also create a federal task force to address PFAS exposure through food and working environments.
  • 132 members of Congress signed a letter in January imploring the Biden administration to restrict industrial releases of the chemicals into the air and water and to designate types of the chemicals as hazardous substances.

Michael Regan, Biden’s nominee to head the EPA, told the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works during his nomination hearing on Feb. 3 that “PFAS, PFOA, perfluorinated compounds will be a top priority for this administration."

  • "We will pursue discharge limits. We will pursue water quality values," Regan said.

People can be exposed to PFAS during normal use of products that contain them, if they work in industries that produce or use the chemicals and through consuming food and drinking water that have been contaminated with PFAS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • People face an increased risk of exposure if their drinking water sources are near industrial facilities where PFAS are produced or used, or near an airport or military base that uses fire suppression foams containing the chemicals, according to the EPA.
  • The health effects from low-level exposure of PFAS are not definitive, but large doses may affect growth and development, reproduction, the immune system, thyroid and liver function, and may increase a person's risk of cancer, according to the CDC and EPA.

The big picture: The CDC has detected multiple PFAS in nearly all of the people tested in its National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals between 1999 and 2016.

  • The CDC's detection of the chemicals in Americans does not imply that the recorded levels cause adverse health effects, but it does indicate "widespread exposure to these PFAS in the U.S. population," the CDC said.

The other side: The American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents major PFAS producers like 3M and Dupont, told the EPA in June 2020 that it would like the federal government to provide guidance and standards on the chemicals, but would prefer regulations on individual chemicals that are proven to produce harmful health effects.

  • Earthjustice believes regulations on individual chemicals in the PFAS family approach are too time-consuming and favors regulating them as a whole.

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