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EPA allies support stronger safeguards for dangerous PFAS ‘forever chemicals’

water fountain
AP Photo/Jim Cole
Water flows from a water fountain at the Boys and Girls Club in Concord, N.H. The state has 469 known PFAS contamination sites.

In his Sept. 18 op-ed, Mario H. Lopez of the Hispanic Leadership Fund misinformed readers about a Superfund listing for two notorious PFAS chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, and mischaracterized the Sierra Club’s stance on PFAS disposal in the process. His claims could not be further from the truth.

Impacted community members and advocates — including the National PFAS Contamination Coalition, the Sierra Club, and GreenLatinos — repeatedly have voiced concerns about the slow and incomplete nature of the federal government’s response. But we all support cleaning it up. Research shows PFAS exposure causes serious health damages, including cancer, pregnancy complications, organ damage and immune system suppression. These highly toxic “forever chemicals” are detected in 97 percent of the general population and can cause harm at even trace levels. 

PFAS are found in the drinking water of millions of Americans, and the pollution crisis is growing daily as the chemicals seep out of industrial sites and landfills into water. These exposures may disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous and other communities of color, with an estimated 1.6 million people of color living within five miles of a PFAS-contaminated site. Another study published by The Guardian reports that counties where Latinx communities make up 25 percent or more of the population have twice as many violations of drinking water quality rules than the rest of the country. 

Ignoring PFAS pollution is not an option. While there’s no easy way to safely destroy PFAS chemicals once they are produced, we must contain the waste and search for effective and scalable destruction technology. PFAS chemicals resist breakdown in hazardous waste incinerators and aren’t contained in landfills. Mr. Lopez fails to mention that designating PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances will unlock Superfund laws, allowing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to recover clean-up costs from the billion-dollar corporations that likely knew these chemicals were toxic decades ago. Author Jennifer Rawlison lives in Newburgh, N.Y., where a Superfund listing has led to accelerated site assessment and clean-up.

The EPA recently suggested that the safe drinking water limits for PFOS and PFOA are in the parts per quadrillion range, classifying them among the most harmful pollutants found on earth. Yet, despite this new EPA guidance, concentrated PFOS-based firefighting foams are being used in fire stations across the country, and thousands of PFAS chemicals are added to household items such as microwave popcorn bags, dental floss, rain jackets and cosmetics. 

While states, companies, other nations, and even the U.S. military are taking steps to halt the use of PFAS in place of safer alternatives, the EPA doesn’t require industry to publicly report most of its uses and emissions of PFAS. Acting as forensic investigators, chemists and water regulators have determined a few polluting industries — including paper manufacturing, textile production, metal plating and fire suppression for petroleum — are the major known culprits of PFAS pollution. These facilities all too often are located in lower-income communities that already are threatened with pollution and where higher consumer water and wastewater bills associated with chemical remediation would be particularly devastating. As it is, the industry’s PFAS pollution is costing communities tens of billions of dollars annually in health care costs and lost wages. It is well past time for industry to foot the bill for their pollution.

Advocates have pointed to dozens of commonsense ways the federal and state governments can and should be fixing the PFAS problem, with the knowledge that many people affected never will be made whole again. EPA Administrator Michael Regan has pledged to use “every tool in the toolbox” to address the PFAS crisis, but it is taking far too long to enact the most basic restrictions on PFAS chemicals. 

Ultimately, a Superfund listing is just one of the steps the EPA must take to address this growing problem.The EPA hasn’t put in place any restrictions on PFAS releases into air, waterways and wastewater systems. A Superfund listing won’t ensure that PFAS wastes are safely managed. That will require the EPA to list PFAS under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and Congress to pass strong legislation, like the The Clean Water Standards for PFAS Act

There is no justifiable reason to ignore the PFAS contamination crisis; nor can we ignore the millions of people in communities across the country who are exposed to polluted soil, drinking water and air every day. 

Sonya Lunder is the senior toxics policy adviser at the Sierra Club. Mariana Del Valle Prieto Cervantes is director of strategic initiatives at GreenLatinos. Jennifer Rawlison is a member of the Newburgh Clean Water Project Steering Committee and a leader of the National PFAS Contamination Coalition, a network of community-based activists impacted by PFAS contamination in the United States.

Tags Environmental Protection Agency PFAS chemicals

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