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Labeling ‘forever chemicals’ as hazardous, EPA announces elimination plan

The long-coming designation empowers the EPA to require cleanups from responsible parties when levels of the ubiquitous cancer-linked compounds get high enough.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Already in the bloodstream of 99% of Americans, two chemical compounds used for decades in countless consumer products earned the hazardous substances designation under federal Superfund law Friday.

The designation “is based on significant evidence that PFOA and PFOS may present a substantial danger to human health or welfare or the environment,” the Environmental Protection Agency said Friday.

PFOA and PFOS are part of part of a wider class of chemical called PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, that used since the 1940s in the manufacturing of everything from Teflon pans, waterproof jackets and carpets to makeup, sunscreen and shampoo.

In 2016, after reviewing several peer-reviewed studies, the EPA said that a lifetime of exposure from drinking water whose PFOA and PFOS content exceeds 70 parts per trillion may result in adverse health effects, including birth defects, cancer and damage to the liver, thyroid and immune system.

While U.S. manufacturers elected to voluntarily phase out the chemical from their products, PFAS chemicals feature a unique molecular makeup that makes them from breaking down in normal environmental settings. On the manufacturing end, this resulted in products resistant to heat, oil, stains, grease and water. But left to build up in the soil and drinking water over the years, it is estimated that PFAs exists in the blood streams of 99% of Americans.

The Biden administration announced its roadmap to confront forever chemicals last fall, putting forth a timeline to set enforceable drinking water limits and to review past actions relating to PFAS taken under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Friday's designation of the chemicals hazardous substances under Superfund law means that federal, state or tribal officials must be informed when certain levels of PFOA and PFOS are released into the environment. The EPA has the authority to require cleanups from the parties responsible or, if no parties can be identified, to use EPA funds for a Superfund cleanup.

“This important step will allow communities to pursue polluters — from manufacturers to irresponsible polluters — and hold them accountable for the damage done,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Friday.

Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania echoed this sentiment, saying the classification safeguards American health.

"I am proud to support this action and look forward to the continued implementation of the PFAS Strategic Roadmap,” Fitzpatrick said.

Other Republicans pushed back, however.

“Property owners, farmers, employers, essential utilities and individuals may be liable for unknowingly having PFAS on their land, even if it was there years or even generations prior to ownership and came from an unknown source,” Senator Shelley Capito of West Virginia said in a statement Friday.

In a similar vein, the American Chemistry Council trade group called the EPA’s remediation proposal “expensive, ineffective and unworkable,” saying that categorizing the chemicals under Superfund law could put groups like fire departments or airports at risk. 

“The proposed (Superfund) designation would impose tremendous costs on these parties without defined cleanup standards,” the council said in a statement.

For environmental activists, the measure is long overdue.

“For decades, polluters dumped toxic PFOA and PFOS into scores of communities across the country with impunity," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. "Today’s proposal will give the EPA and those communities critical new tools to finally hold those polluters accountable and force them to clean up their mess."

While there are more than 5,000 chemicals that belong to the PFAS subset, the EPA has thus far only administered health advisories on two: PFOS, used in Teflon, and PFOA, formerly an ingredient in 3M Scotchgard fabric protectors.

The EPA also noted Friday it plans to propose rules for PFAS in drinking water by the end of 2022.

“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 in a statement Friday. “Under this proposed rule, EPA will both help protect communities from PFAS pollution and seek to hold polluters accountable for their actions.”  

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