SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: September 24, 2020
SNIP: In 2014, residents of Horsham Township, near Philadelphia, learned that their water had been contaminated with potentially toxic chemicals linked to an array of health problems, including learning delays in children and cancer. Those residents include Frank and Lisa Penna, who allege in a lawsuit that their water was among the contaminated supplies.
Known as PFAS, for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the chemicals in this class of approximately 5,000 substances have become notorious as much for their potential danger as for their perseverance. Because the chemical bonds that hold the compounds together don’t break down easily, they last a very long time – a reality that has led to a commonly used name for the group: “Forever chemicals.”
PFAS compounds are also ubiquitous, used in a range of products, from food-delivery boxes to nonstick cookware to stain-resistant clothing. But one of the most troubling routes to PFAS exposure is drinking water that has been contaminated by discharges from factories and other facilities.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates US drinking water, has been investigating PFAS since the late 1990s. It set voluntary guidelines of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for two of the compounds combined that are most studied and believed to be dangerous: PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, and PFOS, or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. (For context, 1 ppt is the equivalent of one grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, according to some estimates.)
But despite the agency’s 20-plus years of information gathering, it still has not issued an enforceable nationwide standard on PFAS. The agency has failed to act even as more about the risks of the chemical group has become known, and even as some scientists and environmental organizations have concluded that a far lower concentration of PFAS in water–1 ppt–is a more appropriate limit.
And an examination by Consumer Reports found that while the EPA’s power to regulate chemicals in water is limited, the agency has waffled for years. “The EPA hasn’t taken a science-based approach to this issue,” says Brian Ronholm, CR’s director of food policy. “It’s imperative for Congress to pass legislation that establishes PFAS limits in drinking water.”
Consumer watchdogs and researchers have long called for action on PFAS. “I first asked the EPA more than 19 years ago … and we are still waiting for a comprehensive, national response,” says Robert Bilott, an attorney who led a class action lawsuit in the 2000s that accused the chemical company DuPont of contaminating drinking water in the Ohio River Valley with PFAS.
Part of the problem, researchers say, is that Congress has also made it hard for the EPA to act.
It wasn’t always so. When Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, it granted the EPA authority to regulate drinking water. Soon after, the agency adopted standards for about two dozen contaminants, according to research by James Salzman, an environmental law professor at UCLA.
But over the next two decades, water utilities began to push back, citing the high cost of removing contaminants, and in 1996, Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act. The amendments “basically gutted the law,” making future regulation unlikely, says Erik Olson, senior strategic director of health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental organization.
But since then the EPA hasn’t implemented a new standard for a previously unregulated contaminant. “The agency has not been able to muster the energy or the political will to jump through all those hoops and regulate a single new chemical through that process in 24 years,” Olson says.
Regulating PFAS presents special challenges for at least two reasons: Thousands of the compounds are already in use, and manufacturers keep introducing new ones, though it’s unclear whether they are any safer.
“It takes 20 years to even consider regulating one, and we’ve got thousands,” says Olson at the NRDC. “It will be literally geologic time before we see regulation of most of them.” Worsening the problem is that while some companies have stopped using PFOA and PFOS, many are replacing them with less-studied PFAS compounds.
But Linda Birnbaum, the recently retired director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Science and now a scholar-in-residence in the department of environmental sciences and policy at Duke University, says there is an even simpler solution.
“I keep asking: why the heck are we making chemicals that are never going to go away?”