Opinion | Energy & Environment

It's time for Congress to address the 'forever chemical' crisis

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A dangerous class of chemicals are building up in the blood of nearly every American. Many of these chemicals have been linked to cancer and other serious health problems. But, until now, our elected leaders in Washington have failed to act.

Millions of Americans are drinking water contaminated with per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Although PFAS contamination has been known to government regulators since the late 1990s, Congress may for the first time address the threat these chemicals pose.

In particular, the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2020 include provisions that would quickly end military uses of PFAS in firefighting foam and food packaging and reduce industrial discharges of PFAS into drinking water supplies.

The House version also includes a provision to designate PFAS as "hazardous substances" under the federal Superfund law, which will kick-start clean up of legacy PFAS contamination and ensure that some PFAS polluters help pay for clean up costs. And, the Senate version would require reporting of some PFAS releases through the federal Toxic Release Inventory and set a deadline for federal drinking water standard.

Because PFAS are man-made "forever chemicals" that never break down once released, they build up in our blood and organs. Virtually all Americans have PFAS in their blood, and about one-fourth of us have unsafe levels. PFAS chemicals have not only been linked to cancer but have also been linked to harm to the reproductive and immune systems. So far, they have been found in nearly 800 communities, and more than 100 million Americans may have PFAS in their drinking water. It's likely that all of us are eating PFAS in our food.

Major sources of contamination are PFAS-based firefighting foams, industrial discharges of PFAS into the air and water, as well as PFAS in food packaging and other everyday consumer products. Despite the risks they pose, there are no legal limits on releases of PFAS chemicals or legal requirements to clean up legacy contamination. Military and civilian firefighters can continue to use PFAS firefighting foams that slowly seep into drinking water supplies, although some have pledged to use alternative foams when they train. Because these foams have been used for decades, hundreds of military installations are contaminated. Army data just confirmed 90 new contamination sites last week.

Bizarre as it sounds, manufacturers continue to legally discharge PFAS into the air and water every day. Nearly 500 facilities are suspected of releases of PFAS chemicals, but these manufacturers are not subject to any environmental or reporting requirements. Water utilities are not required to remove PFAS from our tap water  -  or even test for its presence. It's crazy.

Because PFAS have not yet been designated as "hazardous substances" under our federal Superfund law, PFAS manufacturers are not required to clean up legacy PFAS contamination  -  even though companies like 3M and DuPont knowingly released PFAS chemicals for decades. Internal company documents show that manufacturers knew of the risks PFAS chemicals posed to their own workers and neighboring communities, but failed to tell regulators.

As a result of ongoing and legacy PFAS pollution, millions of Americans face a heightened risk of testicular and kidney cancer and reproductive problems like preeclampsia. The risks posed by PFAS are well known - thanks, in part, to the industry's own secret studies. Other studies - including an unprecedented review of the blood work and medical records of nearly 70,000 residents contaminated by a DuPont plant in West Virginia - make PFAS one of the most studied classes of chemicals in human history.

Of course, polluters always contend more science is needed. One 3M scientist recently testified last week that "associations" between PFAS and cancer were not strong enough to merit government action - even though the same 3M witness trumpeted the company's decision to end the production of PFOA and PFOS in 2000. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) rightly called such contradictions "ridiculous."

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was prepared to designate PFAS as "hazardous substances" before he was brought down by scandal. His successor, Andrew Wheeler, has so far failed to do more than release a PFAS "action plan" that contains not a single new action. But, previous EPA administrators, including President Obama's EPA chief Gina McCarthy, have done little more.

Clearly, it's time for Congress to act. PFAS does not respect party lines. Republicans are just as likely as Democrats to be drinking contaminated water and eating contaminated food. No wonder Republicans and Democrats have worked together to include PFAS reform provisions in the NDAA.

By the end of this month, Congress will decide whether to finally address toxic PFAS pollution. It's action that is long past due.

Scott Faber is the senior vice president for government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a national environmental health organization.

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