The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is sounding the alarm on a group of toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which currently exist in millions of Americans' drinking water, cosmetics, and food packaging. In a new report, the EPA warns that these so-called "forever chemicals" pose a greater danger to human health than regulators previously thought.
The Danger of PFAS
These chemicals are hazardous because they can build up in the human body over time and are very difficult to break down. Exposure to PFAS contributes to many health problems, including cancer, hormonal disruptions, and immune system damage.
The EPA urges Americans to avoid products containing PFAS and to take steps to limit their exposure to these chemicals.
"People on the front-lines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long. That's why EPA is taking aggressive action as part of a whole-of-government approach to prevent these chemicals from entering the environment and to help protect concerned families from this pervasive challenge," said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. "Thanks to President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we are also investing $1 billion to reduce PFAS and other emerging contaminants in drinking water."
The EPA is providing $1 billion in grant funding through President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to assist communities on the front lines of PFAS pollution. The first $5 billion may be utilized to reduce PFAS in drinking water in places with significant impacts.
"Today's actions highlight EPA's commitment to use the best available science to tackle PFAS pollution, protect public health, and provide critical information quickly and transparently," said EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox. "EPA is also demonstrating its commitment to harmonize policies that strengthen public health protections with infrastructure funding to help communities—especially disadvantaged communities—deliver safe water."
Public Health Warnings
In light of newly published studies, the organization is releasing PFAS health warnings to comply with EPA's duty to safeguard public health. These recommendations indicate the level of water contamination with no significant health impacts. These health notifications provide technical information that government officials can utilize to plan monitoring strategies, fund treatment solutions, and develop future policies to prevent PFAS contamination.
"The science is clear that PFAS exposures can be harmful. That's why EPA is moving quickly to protect Americans from these chemicals," said David Ross, assistant administrator of the Office of Water. "We will continue to work with our federal, state, local, and tribal partners to address PFAS in communities across the country."
PFAS Sensitive Life Stages
The EPA's lifetime health advisories define levels that protect everyone, including sensitive groups and life stages, from harmful effects resulting from a lifetime of PFAS exposure in drinking water. EPA's lifetime health warnings also consider additional potential sources of exposure to these PFAS not addressed by the current drinking water regulations (for example, food, air, and consumer products).
In addition to the EPA's actions, the Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) is releasing a Toxicological draft Profile for PFAS. The ATSDR PFAS profile will provide critical information on the health effects of PFAS exposure. It will be used by government agencies, healthcare providers, and the public to understand the potential health impacts of PFAS better.
The Biden-Harris Response
Under the Biden-Harris Administration's whole-of-government approach to addressing these emerging contaminants, the EPA's efforts to identify and confront the dangers that PFAS pose to human health and the environment are crucial. This plan includes steps by the Food and Drug Administration to increase testing for PFAS in food and packaging, by USDA dairy farmers to phase out PFAS-based firefighting foams voluntarily, and by the Department of Defense to develop PFAS cleanup plans for military sites.
"Today's announcement should set off alarm bells for consumers and regulators," said Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization. "These proposed advisory levels demonstrate that we must move much faster to reduce exposures to these toxic chemicals dramatically."
Regulating PFAS Manufacturing
Chemical corporations have utilized extremely durable chemicals to make nonstick cookware, moisture-repellent textiles, and flame-retardant equipment since the 1940s. But the same resilience against water and fire that made them lucrative also allowed them to build up in nature and accumulate in the body — with long-term health consequences.
While the EPA only plans to regulate two PFAS chemicals, over a thousand different chemicals have been identified. Many health advocates argue that federal regulators should crack down on the substances as a whole.
"We can't continue this whack-a-mole approach to regulating them," said Erik Olson, a senior strategic director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, "We'll never be finished in anyone's lifetime."
Radhika Fox, head of the Office of Water at the EPA, said the agency is contemplating more far-reaching class-wide restrictions. "We are exploring options to propose a rule that is for groups, not just PFOA and PFOS."
What You Can Do
The EPA urges people to check their local water quality reports and, where PFAS levels are detected, to use bottled water or a filtration system for drinking and cooking. The agency also recommended that people limit their fish consumption caught in waters with PFAS contamination.
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