A high-stakes debate is raging over a broad class of toxic chemicals that contaminate drinking water consumed by tens of millions of people. These chemicals — called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAS) — can be found in the blood of nearly all Americans.
PFAS are ubiquitous and persistent. They are found in non-stick cookware, water-resistant clothing, fast-food containers, firefighting foams and numerous industrial applications. And PFAS chemicals pose significant risks to people’s immune, reproductive and hormonal systems, affect liver enzymes, raise cholesterol levels and increase risks of kidney and testicular cancer, among other health effects.
Today, there is rising alarm across the U.S. as cleanup costs skyrocket and more people in exposed communities worry about long-term threats to their health. Piecemeal efforts to manage PFAS are failing to address the growing crisis. Bolder solutions are called for, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is on the frontlines. Its new leadership is promising far-reaching action. What should the EPA do?
What the agency should not do is address the PFAS chemicals one at a time. There are 9,252 PFAS chemicals on EPA’s Master List of PFAS; regulating them individually would take forever. Thus, we and others propose that EPA approach PFAS regulation with a class-based approach. The goal should be to eliminate all except essential or critical PFAS uses in order to prevent their continuing buildup in people and the environment. If we continue to produce and use PFAS for which we have replacements, the result will be more unnecessary contamination and avoidable harm to health. This will add hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars to the costs we are now incurring for PFAS-related cleanup and medical care.
The federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) gives EPA the tools for a class-based approach. TSCA authorizes EPA to treat chemicals as a “category” if they are “similar in molecular structure, in physical, chemical or biological properties, or in mode of entrance into the human body or into the environment.” Using this authority, EPA can define all existing PFAS chemicals, including byproducts and transformation products, as a “category” and restrict or ban their uses if the category is determined to pose an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment.
PFAS chemicals meet these criteria because of their similarities in persistence, mobility, and toxicity and the potential for all PFAS to cause the same adverse effects as well-characterized compounds such as PFOA and PFOS. The determination of unreasonable risk can be based on available data for representative PFAS, which can then be applied to other chemicals in the category that have common characteristics and similar conditions of use, exposure and environmental release.
Because it takes at least seven years under TSCA for EPA to impose use restrictions on chemicals, the most efficient approach would be for EPA to define all existing PFAS as a single category. That’s what Maine did in adopting a state law to ban all intentionally added PFAS in products unless the use is deemed unavoidable.
Some have proposed subdividing existing PFAS into four separate categories: long-chain perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs); short-chain replacements for phased-out PFAAs; polyfluoroalkyl substances that are precursors of PFAAs; and polymers, which have been found to degrade to PFAAs. If EPA adopts this approach and waits to obtain more test data on individual category members, it will take decades to protect public health and the environment.
The inherent delays of defining multiple categories have serious health consequences. For example, if EPA first regulates a category limited to long-chain PFAS before addressing other categories, short-chain PFAS may not be regulated for at least 14 years. Yet these substances can be equally persistent and even more mobile in the environment than long-chain PFAS. They are very water-soluble, can travel long distances in water and air, are more effectively taken up by plants, and are even more difficult to remove from drinking water than the long-chain PFAS.
Experimental animal, in vitro, and computational models have shown that the short-chain PFAS have similar health effects to the long-chain substances. People are also exposed to higher levels of the short-chain because they are exposed to so many of them in so many products for long periods of time. Delays in regulating fluoropolymers are also problematic because these polymers have been found to release both intentionally added long-chain PFAS processing aids as well as unintentional PFAS byproducts. A recent study estimated that 80 percent of long-chain perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids in the environment today come from their release during fluoropolymer manufacture and use.
Industry representatives are pressuring Congress and EPA to move slowly in regulating PFAS, but delay is not what the public needs in the face of the large and growing risks of these chemicals to the American people. The federal government will be a laggard if it falls further behind in protecting public health. Domestically, a number of states are taking their own actions to ban PFAS in a variety of products. Internationally, the European Union and Canada are on a fast track to restrict or ban PFAS in products as well.
EPA must act quickly to provide national leadership for this public health crisis.
Dr. Linda Birnbaum is a scientist emeritus and former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, and scholar in residence at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.
Dr. Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland is the former director of Science and Technology in the EPA Office of Water.
Robert Sussman is the former EPA deputy administrator and senior policy counsel to the EPA Administrator.
The authors are members of the Environmental Protection Network (EPN), an organization of almost 550 EPA alumni who volunteer their time to protect the integrity of EPA, human health and the environment.