Time for EPA to come clean on PFAS
Early in the 2019 film “Dark Waters,” Mark Ruffalo watches in exasperation as hundreds of boxes of documents are wheeled into his law firm. His character — real-life attorney Rob Bilott — has forced a powerful chemical company to turn over information on toxic chemicals it dumped near a West Virginia farm. The resulting boxes fill up a storage room wall-to-wall, but Bilott sits on the floor and begins doggedly going through the files one by one.
After many all-nighters away from his family poring over the documents, he begins unraveling the toxic truth about Teflon, one of the corporation’s most profitable postwar products. One of the key ingredients, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), was harmful and the chemical company had known about it since the 1960s.
The box scene perfectly demonstrates the lengths scientists, attorneys and advocates have had to go in seeking critical information about health harm from PFOA and other per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that the chemical manufacturers — and sometimes the Environmental Protection Agency — have been aware of for years.
PFAS are linked to cancer, high cholesterol, obesity, endocrine disruption and other serious health harms. This suppression of information and their identity and harm has led to the drinking water contamination and illness of communities near chemical plants across the country like the community depicted in “Dark Waters.” In an example reported this month, records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Physicians for Social Responsibility reveal that in 2011 the EPA approved the use of three fracking chemicals it knew could break down into toxic and persistent PFAS.
The documents are heavily redacted since the chemical manufacturer invoked trade-secret claims to conceal basic information, including the specific identities of the chemicals. Further, there is no public data identifying where the chemicals have been used.
The shielding of this essential information from the public is especially hazardous for people living near drilling sites, who may be sickened by these and other fracking chemicals. Communities need to know about the chemicals to which they are being exposed in order to demand water testing and clean-up. If and when they do fall ill, not knowing the chemicals’ identity can delay proper diagnosis and treatment.
In some cases, the EPA has allegedly gone beyond withholding information on PFAS to actually altering it. For example, a whistleblower told The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner that risk assessments of a PFAS compound she conducted as an EPA employee were rejiggered, resulting in a 33-fold underestimation of its risk.
The veil of secrecy the EPA has allowed surrounding PFAS comes at a high cost. Even EPA scientists have had to take the expensive and time-consuming reverse engineering approach to track down chemical compositions, uses and harms of PFAS polluting communities. They have been found by our team of scientists and others in everyday products from makeup to fast-food packaging.
This not only wastes resources (including taxpayer dollars) but also lets these extremely persistent “forever chemicals” build up in our environment and bodies before we know enough to try to protect ourselves from them.
Fortunately, President Biden could turn things around. His administration has designated reducing harm from PFAS, including improved transparency, as a priority. Last month the Biden EPA proposed a new rule requiring PFAS manufacturers and importers to disclose information about any PFAS chemical produced in any year going back to Jan. 1, 2011. That includes chemical identity, categories of use, volumes manufactured and processed, byproducts, environmental and health effects, worker exposure and disposal.
The rule includes no minimum volume for reporting and eliminates previous exemptions for articles, impurities, and by-products. This is significant, as limits and exemptions can create regulatory loopholes big enough for airplanes to fly through.
Requiring transparency about where PFAS are used is critical, but even more urgent is stopping the use of PFAS in consumer products altogether. Once PFAS are in the environment, cleaning them up is extremely expensive at best and often not possible. Preventing their use in products is the most effective way to prevent exposure and harm.
For example, last month bipartisan senators and members of the House introduced the No PFAS in Cosmetics Act in both houses to tell the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban these chemicals in makeup and personal care products. Other bills have been under consideration to stop the use of PFAS in food packaging and military purchasing. Similar proposals for additional product categories could curtail the use of these persistent toxic chemicals before they can cause long-lasting harm.
Corporate coverups allowed PFAS to flood our environment. To stem the damage, we need to turn off the tap.
Rebecca Fuoco, MPH, leads communication at the Green Science Policy Institute. Arlene Blum, Ph.D, is the founder and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and a research associate in Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of California in Berkeley, Calif.