Her town of Belmont is one of hundreds across the country contaminated with a ubiquitous batch of dangerous chemicals known as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyls, or PFAS. On Friday, the Biden administration proposed classifying two of the most abundant of these chemical compounds, which can persist in the environment for years, as hazardous substances.
The long-awaited move by the Environmental Protection Agency aims to initiate the clean-up of dozens of sites contaminated by industrial compounds and raise public awareness of their presence. Used to make everyday products such as non-stick cookware, cosmetics, fabrics and food packaging, these types of chemicals permeate the drinking water used by millions of Americans — and they have been linked to a range of diseases, including cardiovascular problems and low birth weight.
“It’s a very important step,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a telephone interview. The proposed rule “requires the polluter to pay for breaking the law.”
Still, people living near toxic waste and their proponents say the federal government under multiple administrations is painfully slow to act, even as the health risks of PFAS become more apparent.
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The agency proposes adding two chemicals, known as PFOA and PFOS, to the official list of hazardous substances under the federal Superfund program, which cleans up toxic waste sites. The listing will make it easier for the federal government to force polluters to pay to restore contaminated sites and channel taxpayers’ money into projects if the culprits cannot be found.
Under the proposed rule, companies will have to report when the substances leach into the environment, even in relatively small quantities. The requirements will help public health officials track where the chemicals persist.
“Transparency and disclosure are critical in this process,” Regan said. “And so this rule will do that.”
Industry representatives argued that listing the two chemicals as hazardous and involving the federal government in more cleanups could complicate them.
The EPA decision is “an expensive, ineffective and unworkable means of achieving remediation for these chemicals,” the American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing chemical makers, said in a statement.
For decades, PFAS has been praised for their durability. With tough fluoro-carbon bonds, the compounds were used to make water-repellent clothing, fire-fighting foam, and a variety of other products.
But that resilience proved dangerous. The fluorinated substances break down slowly, accumulating in water, soil and people’s bodies. According to a recent study, even some of the rainwater is contaminated with PFAS at dangerously high levels. When contamination is found, the tough chemicals are difficult to remove and destroy. Some have called them “forever chemicals.”
One of the most polluted locations is areas outside military bases where pilots used flame retardants to put out plane fires. Under the EPA proposal, the military should consider state laws when cleaning up PFOA and PFOS waste.
In Michigan, shoemaker Wolverine Worldwide dumped trash on land that was eventually used to grow Christmas trees, said Wynn-Stelt, a psychologist who began advocating for the issue of PFAS after learning about the contamination near her home. Chemicals forever entered the drinking water from her own well and eventually from her blood. She worries that the exposure may have contributed to her husband’s death from liver cancer in 2016 and to her own thyroid cancer diagnosis four years later.
Today, under a consent decree with the state, the company plans to install specially designed membranes over parts of the property.
But Wynn-Stelt worries the plan isn’t enough and would still like the federal government to step in. “Our state will go bankrupt if it has to clean up PFOA and PFOS itself,” she said.
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While many locations are still contaminated with these two chemicals, manufacturers have largely discontinued use of both. Thousands of other varieties of forever chemicals remain unaddressed.
Melanie Benesh, vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group, called the EPA’s move “very important” Friday, but warned that the rule alone will not keep PFAS out of the manufacturing process.
“Calling something as a hazardous substance doesn’t really affect its use,” she said.
Many non-government chemists are rushing to find ways to safely remove PFAS. In a paper published this month in the journal Science, a group of researchers outlined an inexpensive way to open those tight fluoro-carbon bonds in some compounds.
Friday’s announcement is the latest effort by a government battling widespread contamination from these chemicals.
This spring, the EPA released new health advisories for PFOA and PFOS. This fall, the agency plans to propose the first mandatory drinking water standards for PFAS.
And two bills signed by President Biden — the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and the Democrats’ Climate and Health Package — reinstated long-expired taxes on chemical and oil companies to spur cleanups.
“This is one of these issues that isn’t Republican or Democrat,” Regan said. “This is a two-pronged issue that many members on both sides of the aisle at all levels of government have asked for the EPA to step in and take a leadership role.”
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