By Doug Farquhar
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt reached out to EPA’s "co-regulators”—state and local environmental officials—last week regarding per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS chemicals.
These chemicals, widely used in food packaging, stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products such as Teflon, and in fire-fighting foams, have been linked to cancers and other health issues.
"We will take the next step under the Safe Drinking Water Act process to evaluate the need for a maximum contaminant level for PFOA and PFOS," Pruitt said. "It's something that has been talked about for a number of years. The process needs to begin."
In May 2016, EPA established a health advisory—but not a regulatory standard—for PFAS in drinking water at 70 parts per trillion (ppt). Identifying a standard is a complex process for the EPA, because the agency must consider the dangers that the chemical poses, the scale of the problem and the cost to clean it up.
Pruitt said the agency will take the first steps to propose designating those two chemicals as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known as Superfund, which would help states and local water utilities require the companies responsible for contamination to pay for its cleanup. It likely will be at least a few years until a hazardous substance standard can be finalized and PFOA and PFOS are only two of roughly 35,000 chemicals in the PFAS class.
At this time, the agency also is developing groundwater cleanup recommendations through its authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act and toxicity values under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which states could use to set limits.
However, states aren’t waiting around for EPA to act. Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Texas and Vermont have each established standards for the chemical at levels stricter than EPA.
State legislatures in 10 states have introduced 49 bills on PFAS since 2017, ranging from bans on the chemical to funding for cleanups. Bills in Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington have been enacted.
The bills in North Carolina and New York provide funding. New Hampshire’s law will test for PFAS in the public. Washington enacted two bills—one on PFAS in food packaging and the second on PFAS in firefighting foam.
To view these or other bills related to chemical safety, visit the NCSL Environmental Health Database.
Doug Farquhar directs the Environmental Health program at NCSL.