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Persistent Pollutants

Superfund regulation proposed for PFOA and PFOS

Hazardous substances designation would make companies liable for environmental cleanup

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
August 29, 2022

Chemical structure of perfluorooctanoic acid.

The US Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to designate two of the most widely used per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as the Superfund law.

The proposal applies to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), including their salts and structural isomers. It is based on significant evidence that PFOA and PFOS may present a substantial danger to human health or welfare, as well as to the environment, the EPA says.

Chemical structure of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid.

If finalized, the designation would trigger reporting of PFOA and PFOS releases, providing the agency with improved data and helping communities better understand the extent of environmental contamination. PFOA and PFOS, along with other PFAS, are already subject to annual release reporting under the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory Program. Under CERCLA, release of more than 0.45 kg within 24 hours requires immediate reporting to the US National Response Center, the EPA says.

The hazardous substances designations would also make companies liable for PFOA and PFOS emissions and give the EPA the option to require cleanups and recover cleanup costs. Such actions will protect public health and encourage better waste management, the EPA says.

Evidence from laboratory animal and human epidemiology studies indicates that exposure to the chemicals may lead to reproductive, developmental, cardiovascular, liver, and immunological effects, including cancer. They are considered “forever chemicals” because of their longevity in human and animal tissue and in the environment. PFOA and PFOS are the best studied PFAS.

The proposal is opposed by the American Chemistry Council, which termed it “an expensive, ineffective and unworkable means to achieve remediation for these chemicals.” The chemical industry trade group instead urges the EPA to rely on options that are part of existing regulatory schemes.

However, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a research and advocacy organization, lauds the prospects for cleanup. The “historic proposal will mean PFAS polluters are finally held accountable,” Melanie Benesh, EWG’s vice president of government affairs, says in a statement.

The EPA heralded the proposal’s implications for environmental justice for communities that are already overburdened by pollution. It is likely to be accompanied by other federal and state efforts to address contamination from other PFAS, several of which taint drinking water nationwide.



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