Bill Targeting Toxic Chemicals Reintroduced in House

The legislation, backed by celebrities like actor Mark Ruffalo, calls for federal regulation of “forever chemicals” that are known to cause cancer and other health problems.  

(Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — A bipartisan bill calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to start regulating toxic manmade chemicals found in a wide range of products was formally introduced for a second time in the House on Tuesday.

Polyfluoroalkyl and perfluorooctanoic substances, PFAS and PFOS for short, have been found at high levels in groundwater across the nation. Also known as “forever chemicals” for their resistance to dissolution, the chemical compounds can be found in nonstick cookware, cosmetics, fast food wrappers, stain-resistant sprays, and a number of household cleaning products.

Last January, amid the first impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, the House passed the PFAS Act of 2019, which directed federal agencies to work at reducing groundwater levels of those chemicals after studying them for a year. At a hearing the previous fall, Michael Hickney of Hoosick Falls, New York, told congressional lawmakers the chemicals had contributed to the illnesses and eventual deaths of several members of his community, including his own father.

The bill didn’t make it through the Senate, which was then controlled by Republicans, and had to be reintroduced in the new Congress.

The 2019 bill’s sponsor, Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell, said during a virtual news conference Tuesday the new bill being introduced was identical to the one the House passed last year, with lawmakers wanting to build on strong bipartisan support they received for the last package. Now dubbed the PFAS Action Act, the bill would call on the EPA to set enforceable standards for maximum PFAS contaminant levels for drinking water.

“Since the enactment of the fiscal year 2020 [National Defense Authorization Act], the Department of Defense’s PFAS Task Force has increased, the number of PFAS contamination sites at active or closed military installations increased from 401 to 702 nationwide,” Dingell said. “And the Environmental Working Group has also separately identified 327 military sites with known PFAS contamination.”

The congresswoman noted PFAS are found in many common everyday products from pots and pans to socks to food storage containers. She said military facilities have not taken aggressive steps to clean up the groundwater contamination.

Michigan Republican Fred Upton also threw his support behind the bill at Tuesday’s virtual conference, saying its intent was to get the EPA to partner with Congress to set high standards for acceptable chemical levels in water. He said the issue is personal to him, recalling arriving in Michigan after flying in from the nation’s capital to a frantic state senator concerned about an extremely contaminated site in his district that couldn’t wait another second to be resolved.

“And I immediately got on the horn and worked with our sheriff’s department, first responders, our health department to literally not waste a minute,” Upton said. “I mean, folks went door to door that night telling residents to stop using their tap water, stop watering their yards, to disconnect their ice machines in their refrigerators, making infant formula.”

Lawmakers also were joined Tuesday by actor Mark Ruffalo, who starred in the 2019 movie “Dark Waters,” a film about attorney Robert Bilott’s legal case against Delaware-based chemical company DuPont for ignoring PFAS contamination levels in 1999. Ruffalo said clean water is a common-ground issue for Republicans and Democrats during a divided time in our nation’s history.

He said it is amazing to him that the EPA has known about the risks from PFAS for decades and yet has done nothing to regulate their discharges under federal laws like the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act.

“Now we know that PFAS is building up in our blood and organs,” Ruffalo said. “We know that PFAS has been linked to serious health problems, we know PFAS has contaminated the drinking water of many more than 200 million Americans, more than that voted in the last election.”

Scott Faber, senior vice president of governmental affairs at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, underscored the importance of congressional action. President Joe Biden’s vow to address the issue with the EPA for thousands of communities was welcome news, he said, but direct action is still required.

“Communities affected by PFAS have heard pledges and promises before and under current rules it could be almost four years before EPA even sets a drinking water standard and years longer before utilities could have to meet it,” Faber said.

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