EPA grapples with potential health threat in drinking water

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Court rejects new effort to stop kids' climate lawsuit | Baltimore is latest city to sue over climate change | EPA staffers worried about toxic chemical in Pruitt's desk Pruitt staffers worried about toxic chemical in his desk Andrew Wheeler must reverse damage to American heartland MORE is starting to grapple with a class of chemicals used in manufacturing that has been found in drinking water in recent years. 

Pruitt convened a summit this week with state officials, industry representatives, environmental advocates and others to discuss the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the water supply. He labeled the issue a “national priority” and promised certain steps toward potentially regulating the chemicals' presence in water.

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Among other steps, Pruitt said the EPA would formally consider whether to set national limits on the drinking water concentration of two of the thousands of chemicals in the family: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). 

The chemical industry even endorsed the actions, though cautioned that the EPA has to use “sound science” as it moves forward.

But some in Congress, along with environmental and public health advocates, are skeptical that Pruitt will take strong action on PFAS. They point to the Trump administration’s deregulatory bent and an email uncovered last week in which a White House aide said an as-yet-unreleased federal study on the chemicals could be a “public relations nightmare.”

“At this point, it really just seems like a public show, with no action to really to back it up,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. 

Pruitt’s actions on PFAS were also overshadowed by an uproar over the EPA barring journalists from much of the summit and allegations that a security guard shoved a reporter out of the building when she tried to cover it.

The man-made chemicals have been used to make products like Teflon, Scotchgard and firefighting products. Companies have been using them for decades.

But only recently have the health risks from PFAS garnered attention. The risks are under scrutiny in part due to the Flint, Mich., water crisis, which spurred a nationwide focus on water contamination that has uncovered water issues at military bases and manufacturing facilities in New York, New Hampshire, Michigan and North Carolina, among other places.

Consumption of at least some of the compounds has been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, immune system problems and other ailments.

Pruitt organized the PFAS summit earlier this year in response to growing calls from lawmakers and states for the7 EPA to take actions like increasing research and exploring regulation. 

“This is a national priority that we need to focus on as a country,” Pruitt said at the event. “There are concerns across the country about these chemicals because of their persistence, their durability, getting into the environment and impacting communities in an adverse way.”

Pruitt made four pledges on behalf of the EPA. He said the agency would evaluate whether to set maximum PFOS levels for drinking water, develop recommendations for cleaning the chemicals out of groundwater, consider whether to designate some of them as “hazardous substances” for environmental cleanup purposes and do research on toxicity levels for some of the compounds. 

The American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical companies, endorsed Pruitt’s approach.

“I think we were overall pretty encouraged. It’s fairly consistent with the sort of things that we’re looking for in terms of next steps we want EPA to take in this area,” said Jessica Bowman, the group’s director for fluor-chemistry. 

The industry wants to ensure, however, that newer PFAS compounds are not swept up in the EPA’s action. It argues that legacy chemicals like PFOS and PFOA — neither of which is produced domestically anymore — are the main issue, and newer chemicals are more advanced and less harmful.

“We want to make sure that EPA does take into consideration that there is a significant variation in the substances that all fall within this class of chemistry, and they don’t all require risk-based regulation,” Bowman said, adding that she believes Pruitt will endorse that view.

But environmental advocates and many lawmakers distrust Pruitt to handle the issue. They say he is unlikely to order the right scientific studies or go far enough to limit acceptable chemical levels in water.

“I’m very concerned about Pruitt’s leadership on this issue,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.).

Boyle said he’s particularly worried about the revelation last week that an unknown White House aide predicted a “public relations disaster” from a federal health study about the substances. The email was uncovered by a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Union of Concerned Scientists and first reported by Politico.

Numerous lawmakers are demanding that the Health and Human Services Department’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry release the research referenced in the email. 

Patrick Breysse, that agency’s head, said at the EPA summit that he and his staff were “working aggressively” to get the study out. 

Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoSenate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit Lots of love: Charity tennis match features lawmakers teaming up across the aisle Senate takes symbolic shot at Trump tariffs MORE (R-W.Va.) has also put pressure on the EPA over PFAS. 

Asked if she’s pleased with how the EPA is handling the issue, she said, “I’m not totally pleased, no, but I want to find out what kind of levels are acceptable and remediate the problems.”

As for whether she has confidence in Pruitt’s handling, she said, “I think time will tell, honestly.”

It has proven difficult for the EPA to designate a new chemical for filtering under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Since the act was updated in 1996, only one new chemical has been designated for potential regulation, and the EPA still hasn’t moved to regulate it. 

But the bigger issue, in environmentalists view, is Pruitt’s desire to avoid regulation and cater to industry. 

“Reading the tea leaves, it’s pretty clear that they are following the chemical industry’s lead on this,” said Erik Olson, director of the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“We feel that we certainly can’t trust EPA to set a health-protective standard for these chemicals.” 

Pruitt's controversial science “transparency” proposal would also make it difficult for the EPA to publish a strong regulation, green advocates say.

The proposal, among other changes, would require that any scientific findings the EPA uses for regulating be based on data that is available to the public and reproducible.

Epidemiological studies, like those examining the effects of contaminants, often rely on personal data that researchers agree to keep private, and they can’t be reproduced since they only happen once.

That would make it difficult for the EPA to use some of the most consequential studies on PFAS, advocates say. 

“You throw out all evidence that these chemicals are already impacting human health,” Andrews said, pointing to research from the major PFOA spill in West Virginia in 2014 as an example. 

“The implications could be enormous in terms of ignoring the significant amounts of scientific data that these chemicals are already impacting health.”