Dingell leads charge ahead of key House vote on ‘forever chemicals’
Rep. Debbie Dingell is leading the House charge against “forever chemicals,” spearheading an effort that will result in a House vote Wednesday to crack down on the carcinogenic compounds that the Michigan Democrat said now contaminate the blood of every person “in the modern world.”
“We know that PFAS is causing cancer, infertility, thyroid problems, a host of other health issues,” Dingell told The Hill on Monday afternoon. “So how much longer can we wait to protect people?”
Toxic perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as forever chemicals, have long contaminated waterways and are linked to kidney, liver, immunological, developmental and reproductive issues.
Dingell’s bill would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set national drinking water standards for the two most common PFAS compounds — PFOA and PFOS — within two years of enactment. To date, the EPA has only established “health advisory levels” for the chemicals.
Dingell and fellow Michigan Rep. Fred Upton (R) introduced the PFAS Action Act of 2021. Similar legislation passed the House in the previous Congress but was stuck in the Senate and opposed by former President Trump.
President Biden supports the House bill, however, and Dingell is hopeful for action in the Senate given the new bill has gained some GOP support.
“We’re sitting here with no federal directions on PFAS since I walked in the doors as a member of Congress,” Dingell said. “Anything that gets a safe drinking water standard is not a first step, but is significant for people in this country.”
With PFAS leaching into water supplies via everything from firefighting foam to nonstick pans, makeup, fast-food containers and waterproof apparel, Dingell and her colleagues argue that “the time is now to get this cleaned up.”
The bill would have the EPA designate the two compounds, PFOA and PFOS, as “hazardous substances” within a year of enactment, with an additional five years to determine whether all PFAS — of which there are more than 5,000 — should receive this designation. The EPA would then have five years to submit a review of its efforts to clean up sites contaminated by the designated substances. The agency would also have 180 days to designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous air pollutants.
The EPA administrator would mandate “comprehensive toxicity testing” on all PFAS, with the flexibility to sort compounds into categories “based on hazard characteristics or chemical properties” and adjust testing requirements accordingly. A final rule on testing would occur within two years.
The bill would also limit industrial discharges of PFAS and allocate $200 million annually from 2022 to 2026 for wastewater treatment, as well as restrict incineration of PFAS wastes. The agency would make PFAS-free labels available for relevant products, while establishing a household well water testing website that clearly communicates public health risks.
A number of Republicans have opposed the bill, arguing that it essentially could lead to a broad ban on PFAS.
No Senate companion bill has been introduced, but Dingell expressed confidence that such legislation could receive the 60 votes necessary to clear a Senate filibuster.
Senate Democrats are crafting a budget reconciliation package they plan to pass through the chamber with just Democratic votes. Budget reconciliation measures cannot be filibustered, and Republicans would not have the power to block it.
Asked whether the PFAS bill could be incorporated as part of a larger Senate reconciliation package, Dingell said that she and her colleagues had not yet discussed this option but reiterated that the legislation “stands on its own” and could attract Senate support.
“If you don’t try, you’re not going to get it,” she said.
Democrats and Republicans alike are beginning to understand both the danger and the ubiquity of the compounds, Dingell told The Hill. She noted that residential communities and 328 military bases across the country are experiencing the effects of PFAS contamination.
In addition to Upton, Dingell’s bill has four other GOP co-sponsors.
Michigan took independent action last year to regulate PFAS levels in the state’s drinking water — setting limits that are far stricter than the EPA’s 2016 health advisory levels. Dingell pointed out that the legislative process for these regulations began with the support of then-Gov. Rick Snyder — a Republican — in 2018.
Dingell attributed Michigan’s leadership on PFAS both to the sizable military footprint in the state and to water contamination trauma that is still fresh in people’s minds. After the city of Flint began pumping from the Flint River instead of piping in treated water from Detroit in 2014, drinking water became contaminated with lead and Legionella bacteria and made residents sick.
“We’ve had a whole community not able to drink water out of their tap,” Dingell said. “The Flint water situation has really sensitized people to the criticalness of making sure their drinking water is safe to drink and not poisoning any more of our citizens, residents or children.”
“We’re going to keep pushing,” Dingell said. “American people want their water to be safe. More and more people are finding out that their Teflon pans, their socks, their clothes, the makeup, their storage containers, have PFAS, and it’s in their blood. And you’re going to hear more and more people say, ‘I don’t want to be poisoned.’ ”