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EPA gears up for controlling poly- and perfluorochemical pollution

Agency plans legal limit on four PFASs in drinking water, creating liability for PFOS and PFOA contamination

by Cheryl Hogue
May 22, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 22


Chemical structures of perfluorooctanoic acid, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, and perfluorobutanesulfonic acid.

The U.S. EPA is moving on several fronts to control four poly- and perfluorinated alkyl compounds (PFASs) that contaminate or threaten to taint drinking water in at least 20 states across the nation. Some of these efforts will take years to complete.

Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced a four-pronged plan to address PFASs on May 22 at a meeting with representatives of states and tribes, other federal agencies, and industry groups, along with congressional aides and a sprinkling of environmental and community activists. No academic scientists, who have done much work on identifying PFAS contamination and the toxicity of these substances, were present at the meeting.

In a first step, EPA will evaluate the need to set a legally enforceable drinking water limit for two substances formerly widely used but no longer manufactured in the U.S., perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), Pruitt said. These two substances, which are each linked to health problems, contaminate drinking water across the U.S. EPA in 2016 established a nonbinding advisory level of 70 ppt for the compounds, individually or combined. PFOA and PFOS pollution stems from decades of industrial activity, including chemical manufacturing and the disposal of waste tainted with the substances. It is also found near military sites where fire-fighting foams containing these chemicals have been and continue to be used.

In a second action, Pruitt said EPA will propose designating PFOA and PFOS pollution as hazardous waste. This would establish liability for companies responsible for PFOA and PFOS pollution to clean it up, a boon for state regulators struggling to get remediation efforts underway. In a related third step, EPA is developing recommendations for cleaning up these two compounds at contaminated sites, guidance that Pruitt said will be completed this autumn. Both actions will help address concerns of state regulators who, through the Environmental Council of the States, say the current situation leaves EPA and states lacking clear authority to order investigations or cleanup of PFAS pollution.

In a fourth move, EPA is working with states and other federal agencies to establish human health toxicity values for two fluorochemicals that in the last decade or so replaced PFOA and PFOS, respectively: hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (HFPO-DA), which is formed through hydrolysis of Chemours’s GenX fluoroether surfactant; and perfluorobutanesulfonic acid, which is a 3M product.

At the meeting, Carel Vandermeyden, director of engineering for a North Carolina water utility that is contending with a river water supply tainted with HFPO-DA and other fluorochemicals, said ratepayers so far are stuck with the bill for removing PFAS from drinking water.

The largest trade association for the U.S. chemical industry, the American Chemistry Council, endorsed the use of best available science to determine an appropriate maximum contaminant level in drinking water for PFOS, PFOA, and other so-called legacy PFASs that are no longer made or used domestically. At the meeting, Jessica Bowman, ACC senior director of global fluorochemistry, also expressed support for a possible EPA move that Pruitt did not mention—a regulation to prohibit imports of products containing legacy PFASs.



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