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EPA Moves Forward with PFAS Action Plan

On November 22, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it is moving forward with the drinking water standard setting process outlined in the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (collectively known as PFAS), as well as a process for listing certain PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). The EPA is giving advanced notice of proposed rulemaking that would allow the public to provide input on adding PFAS to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) toxic chemical list. The EPA also announced the availability of $4.8 million in funding to expand research on managing PFAS in the agricultural sector as an overall effort to help communities address PFAS groundwater contamination across the nation.

PFAS?

PFAS refers to a group of chemicals that has been used since the 1940s in a large number of applications and consumer products such as a primary ingredient in firefighting foams, plating facility misters, non-stick cookware, grease-resistant packaging, waterproof fabrics, and many other popular products. PFAS chemicals have been found in public water systems, airports, industrial and manufacturing facilities, military bases and firefighting training sites. Most people have been exposed to PFAS in one form or another. When PFAS are released into the environment, they are extremely slow to degrade and can create unfit conditions for groundwater and surface water intended for consumption. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) says PFAS has been linked to changes in liver, thyroid and pancreatic function, infertility and reproductive issues, immune issues, and an increase in cancer risk. PFAS are also found to accumulate in the blood. Studies on the environmental and human health impacts of PFAS exposure are relatively new, but concern about these impacts is growing across industries and communities nationwide.

Regulatory Status

Although the EPA has fined companies for violating toxic substance regulations in reference to manufacturing and releasing the compounds, it has not yet established federal regulatory limits for PFAS in drinking water. Currently, there is a small patchwork of states regulating the substance at local levels that is inconsistent; in many states PFAS are not regulated at all.

Lawmakers Press on for Regulatory Standards

The House Energy and Commerce Committee advanced a package of bills (H.R. 535) on November 20, with a vote of 31-19, that sets far-reaching provisions for PFAS. Meanwhile, disputes about including provisions related to PFAS chemicals in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to limit exposure on military bases has contributed to a delay in finalizing the bill to be brought to a vote in the House. The military and the Department of Defense are the biggest users of PFAS chemicals in the nation.

Considerations

The EPA’s recent announcement is a long-awaited push towards an overall attempt to close the gaps surrounding our understanding of PFAS including its presence, impact, and regulation, and developing protocols for monitoring, cleanup, and risk assessment.

PFAS has been a complex issue for the regulated community, industry, and environmental consultants. The use of firefighting foam on a site fire may create a different issue with the release of a potentially regulated chemical. Considering risk moving forward, to regulate these chemicals as a hazardous substance could also subject them to other permitting and compliance issues.

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