Each week, it seems as if numerous articles and press releases are published recounting regulatory uncertainty, legislative action, community concerns and public outcry surrounding per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Whether it is a chemical fire combated with PFAS-abundant foam, long-term health concerns for military and firefighting personnel, the reporting of impacted drinking water supplies, or the detection of contaminated food packaging — they’re everywhere, may affect millions of people, and are not likely to go away anytime soon.
While steps are being taken by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and legislative bodies, PFAS are often referred to as “forever chemicals” as they are resistant to breakdown in the environment and are water soluble, resulting in their prevalence in our soil, groundwater, surface water and drinking water. The most abundant, studied, and regulated PFAS compounds of the estimated 4,700 estimated variants are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). PFAS have been linked to numerous health effects, with studies showing that PFAS chemicals may affect child development, fertility, liver health, hormone levels, cholesterol levels, and increase the risk of cancer.
On December 20, President Trump signed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act into law which includes provisions for the Department of Defense to stop use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam by October 2024 (with exception of use on ships), required blood testing of military firefighters, and instituting a ban on the use of PFAS-containing packaging for field rations. The bill dropped a provision that would designate the chemicals as a hazardous substance under the federal Superfund law (CERCLA) and a provision that would require polluters to clean up PFAS-contamination. However, the legislation also adds PFAS to the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), an effort that would force manufacturers to annually report their data, and municipalities to disclose if PFAS has been found in drinking water.
The EPA has established health advisories for PFOA and PFOS at 70 parts per trillion (ppt), but several states have taken the lead by establishing their own regulatory standards. States such as Minnesota have a limit of 15 ppt for PFOS, and California has limits at 14 ppt for PFOA and 13 ppt for PFOS. Thirteen states have sued manufacturers of PFAS for contaminated water and other resources. Lawsuits are expected to emerge in greater numbers across the states as PFAS have found their residence in American public discourse.
It is unclear whether the EPA will deliver a regulatory standard by the end of the year for PFAS as initially projected, but states will likely continue to adopt their own regulations for PFAS in drinking water at levels lower than the EPA’s health advisory. The chemical properties and ubiquitous nature of PFAS may create further challenges for states as certain water infrastructure and remediation efforts are required to combat these compounds. However, adding PFAS to the TRI list (which PFAS chemicals are to be reported and in what capacity is currently unknown) can provide a framework for manufacturers to standardize data collection for the substances and subsequently, greater data to understand PFAS’ relationship to human health and the environment.
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