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Persistent Pollutants

US Congress set to pass handful of PFAS controls

Legislation includes reporting, cleanup, and monitoring requirements

by Cheryl Hogue
December 10, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 48

Photo shows a US Geological Survey scientist taking a water sample from a creek.
Credit: Jamie Myers/USGS
The US Defense authorization bill for 2020 would require the US Geological Survey to sample water nationwide to detect highly fluorinated compounds.

US congressional lawmakers have struck a deal on legislation that would require release reporting, cleanup, and monitoring of some per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are a group of commercial, synthetic chemicals that are highly durable. They are used in or to make products including fire-fighting foams, membranes for chlor-alkali electrolysis, flame- or water-resistant clothing, and cosmetics.

The provisions on PFAS are part of an agreement on must-pass legislation to authorize military spending in fiscal 2020. Studies link a handful of PFAS to health problems including cancer and hormone disruption, while the toxicity of thousands of other PFAS haven’t been studied at all.

After months of talks, negotiators from the Senate and House of Representatives released their final version of the bill (S. 1790) Dec. 9. Both chambers are expected to vote on and pass the bill in coming days. The compromise legislation contains fewer PFAS provisions than either the Senate- or House-passed version of the bill (S. 1507 and H.R. 2500).

Drawing shows the chemical structure of the Chemours substance GenX.

The resulting measure would require industrial and government facilities to report to the Environmental Protection Agency annual releases greater than 45 kg of certain PFAS, starting in 2020. This provision for reporting under the EPA’s toxic release inventory would apply to Chemours’s GenX—a surfactant used to aid fluoropolymer polymerization­—and the form of this compound found in North Carolina drinking water. It also applies to PFAS no longer or rarely used in the US: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and its salts, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and its salts, perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), and perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS).

Drawing shows chemical structure of perfluorohexane sulfonic acid.

The legislation would also require the EPA to determine, within 2 years, whether to add more PFAS to the toxics release inventory. It specifies that the EPA consider including any PFAS for which there is a valid method for measuring in drinking water; the potassium salt of 6:2 fluorotelomer sulfonic acid, which is a component of some firefighting foams; and the dimer acid fluoride used to manufacture GenX. But in a win for fluorochemical producers, lawmakers excluded from consideration any other substances used to manufacture fluorinated polymers.

In addition, the Senate-House deal would allow any state governor to enter an agreement with the Department of Defense to require the military to clean up drinking water tainted by PFAS from defense operations. This cleanup would meet standards set either by the state or the EPA, whichever is more stringent.

The measure would further require the Defense Department to stop using fluorinated fire-fighting foams by Oct. 1, 2024. It specifies that the military is to dispose of fire-fighting foams and spent water filters that contain PFAS by incinerating those materials at temperatures high enough to break down the persistent compounds and to reduce or eliminate emissions of PFAS and toxic hydrogen fluoride. The legislation would also prohibit the use of PFAS in food contact materials used in military meals ready to eat.

If enacted, the legislation will require the US Geological Survey to determine the concentration of highly fluorinated compounds in waterways, aquifers, and soils nationwide.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) says he will bring a comprehensive PFAS control bill (H.R. 535), which the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved Nov. 20, to a full House vote in January. Whether the Senate will pass that bill is uncertain.


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