Aug 26, 2022 - Energy & Environment

EPA to designate 2 "forever chemicals" as hazardous substances

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan speaking in Pittsburgh in June 2022.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan speaking in Pittsburgh in June. Photo: David Maxwell/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency unveiled Friday a proposal to designate certain "forever chemicals" as hazardous substances under the 1980 Superfund law.

Why it matters: Designating two of these chemicals as hazardous will increase transparency around releases of the compounds and could allow the EPA to hold polluters accountable by forcing them to clean up their contamination.

How it works: Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — dubbed "forever chemicals" for their durability — are extremely strong chemicals that that resist degradation by repelling oil and water and withstanding high temperatures.

  • They have been used in several nonstick, water-repellent and fire-resistant consumer and industrial products for decades, including cookware, some food packaging and firefighting materials.
  • Because they resist degradation, PFAS can accumulate in people, livestock, fish and wildlife if they enter the environment through production or waste streams.
  • Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to adverse health effects, including elevated blood pressure. They also may increase a person's risk of cancer and affect growth and development, reproduction, the immune system, and thyroid and liver function, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and EPA.

Designating PFOA and PFOS — two of the most widely used PFAS — as hazardous in all forms under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act may encourage better waste management and treatment practices by facilities handling the compounds.

  • It would require entities handling PFOA and PFOS waste to report releases of the chemicals that meet or exceed a certain quantity to the EPA's National Response Center or state or tribal emergency response commissions.
  • "A release of these or any other hazardous substance will not always lead to the need to clean up or add a site to the National Priorities List (NPL), liability or an enforcement action," the EPA said.
  • "The reporting of a release could potentially accelerate privately financed cleanups and mitigate potential adverse impacts to human health and the environment," it added.

Yes, but: PFOA and PFOS and just two types of PFAS, which is are a family of nearly 5,000 types of chemicals.

What they're saying: “Communities have suffered far too long from exposure to these forever chemicals. The action announced today will improve transparency and advance EPA’s aggressive efforts to confront this pollution, as outlined in the Agency’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said.

  • “Under this proposed rule, EPA will both help protect communities from PFAS pollution and seek to hold polluters accountable for their actions," Regan added.

The other side: The American Chemical Council, which represents major PFAS producers like 3M and Dupont, said Friday the "new proposed CERCLA listing is an expensive, ineffective and unworkable means to achieve remediation for these chemicals."

  • “CERCLA is complicated, results in extensive delays and is fraught with unintended consequences. There are other more effective and timely means to address potential site remediation through existing regulatory processes," it added.

The big picture: The proposed designation comes after the EPA in June released a new health advisory dramatically reducing the levels of PFOA and PFOS considered safe to drink, based on newly available science indicating that the chemicals were more dangerous than thought.

  • However, there are currently no national drinking water standards for PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act, nor specific federal mandates for its continual testing in drinking water systems, though they have been detected in hundreds of systems around the country.
  • President Biden promised in the 2020 election to designate PFAS as hazardous.

What's next: The EPA still has to publish the proposed rule in the Federal Register for it to take effect, though it said it would so in the next several weeks.

  • After it's published, the public will have 60 days to comment before the rule is finalized.

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