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Persistent Pollutants

PFAS targeted in legislation passed by US House of Representatives

Bill aims at air, water, and land pollution, as well as toxicity testing of the ‘forever chemicals’

by Cheryl Hogue
July 21, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 27

Photo shows the River Walk area in Wilmington, North Carolina, alongside the Cape Fear River.
Credit: Shutterstock
PFAS pollution gained noteriety when the tap water supply for Wilmington, North Carolina, was found to be tainted with a Chemours fluorochemical called GenX in 2017. The city draws its drinking water, which now goes through activated carbon filtration, from the Cape Fear River downstream of the Chemours plant.
Chemical structure of perfluorooctanoic acid.

Sweeping legislation to control per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) pollution in land, water, and air passed the US House of Representatives July 21.

If approved by the Senate and signed by the president, the measure could cost the fluorochemical industry millions to clean up contaminated sites and restrict releases of PFAS pollution from factories. Chemical manufacturers would also have to sponsor toxicity studies in order to keep their PFAS on the US market. In addition, the bill would forbid introducing new PFAS into US commerce for 5 years.

Chemical structure of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid.

PFAS, a group of more than 9,000 synthetic compounds, are sturdy molecules that withstand harsh conditions and strongly resist degradation in the environment, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” Only a small number of these substances have been studied for toxicity, and some are linked to human health problems including birth defects and endocrine disruption. Congressional lawmakers are increasingly concerned about the substances as researchers discover more areas tainted with PFAS, notably in drinking water supplies.

“This is a bipartisan issue and an issue that impacts communities in literally every state,” Rep. Chris Pappas (D-NH), a supporter of the bill, says in a statement. “Far too many Americans are drinking contaminated water.”

The legislation, H.R. 2467, would speed up procedures the US Environmental Protection Agency must go through to regulate pollution or require chemical manufacturers to test their products.

The bill primarily targets two PFAS that are widespread pollutants but no longer made or sold in the US­—perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The EPA would also have to determine, within 5 years, whether to impose similar controls on other PFAS.

To the relief of many communities across the US with PFOS- and PFOA-tainted water, the legislation would direct the EPA to set federal health-based limits on the two substances in drinking water within 2 years, speeding up the agency’s ongoing effort to set such limits The bill would require the EPA to offer grants to communities to pay for technologies to remove the two chemicals from drinking water supplies.

H.R. 2467 would require the EPA to designate PFOS and PFOA as hazardous substances under the Superfund federal hazardous waste cleanup law, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. This designation would trigger two actions. First, facilities would have to report their releases of PFOS and PFOA into the environment and become liable for cleaning up contamination. Second, the designation would allow the federal government to remediate sites polluted with these two chemicals and recoup the costs from polluters.

The legislation also would limit releases of these substances to the air and waterways.

Congressional lawmakers are increasingly concerned about the substances as researchers discover increasingly more areas tainted with PFAS.

It would do so by listing PFOS and PFOA as hazardous air pollutants, which are subject to tight emission controls, under the Clean Air Act.

And it would ban industrial facilities from discharging any PFAS into sewer systems unless they have informed wastewater treatment plants about the identity and quantity of these substances. The EPA would have to review industrial discharges of PFAS directly to rivers, lakes, and streams and decide whether to limit release of any of these chemicals.

A novel provision in the bill, added shortly before the House voted, would impact analytical chemists at the EPA and state pollution control agencies. It would require companies that have produced or imported any PFAS in the US during the past decade to supply the EPA with analytical reference standards of each compound. These samples could only be used for environmental research or enforcement.

This provision would circumvent a situation like one earlier this year in which Solvay used threats of patent infringement claims to stop a standard maker from selling a PFAS sample to federal researchers in Italy. Solvay has contracted with another standard maker and the federal researchers now have a small quantity of the material.

In addition, the bill would direct the EPA to establish a label for PFAS-free products that manufacturers of cookware, carpets, rugs, clothing, furniture, umbrellas, and luggage could use voluntarily. The agency would have to review those claims before companies could use the labels.

The House passed the measure 241–183. The bill, introduced by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI), has Republican and Democrat co-sponsors.

The legislation now heads to the Senate, where its chances for passage are unclear. Pressure on lawmakers from constituents in PFAS-tainted areas is increasing, with millions of people living in the nearly 2,800 communities affected thus far, according to the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group.

Opponents to the measure include the US chemical industry’s main lobbying group, the American Chemistry Council, along with other business groups representing makers of flexible packaging, printing inks, and electronics, according to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), who led House Republican efforts against the bill. Some drinking water and wastewater treatment organizations are also against the bill because they fear Superfund cleanup liability for legally disposing of PFAS collected in their treatment operations.

Many Republicans assert that the bill would create a de facto ban on all PFAS, including fluroropolymers used in medical devices such as those used to repair aortic aneurysms. Democrats vigorously counter this claim.

In a July 19 policy statement, the White House says the Biden-Harris administration supports congressional passage of H.R. 2467. This indicates President Joe Biden is likely to sign the legislation if lawmakers send it to his desk.



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