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US lawmakers’ bill would trigger cleanup of PFAS

Legislation would designate all per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances as hazardous

by Cheryl Hogue
January 15, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 3

Photo shows firefighters in protective gear holding a large hose spewing foam at a fire.
Credit: Airman 1st Class Amber Powell/US Air National Guard
Firefighting foams that contain PFAS are the source of some drinking water contamination.

A new US congressional bill that would deem all per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as hazardous substances will pave the way for federal cleanup of PFAS-polluted sites, proponents say. But makers and formulators of these chemicals say lumping them together for regulation isn’t scientifically valid.

“Our bipartisan legislation will list all PFAS as the hazardous chemicals we know they are and give the [Environmental Protection Agency] the tools it needs to clean up contaminated sites,” says Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who introduced the bill Jan. 14 with fellow Michigan lawmakers Reps. Dan Kildee (D) and Fred Upton (R). The districts they represent, as well as others in the state, are contending with contamination of drinking water with PFAS leaching from industrial landfills or washed into groundwater from the use of fire-fighting foams that contain the chemicals.

The bill, which has not yet been assigned a number, would require the EPA to designate all PFAS as hazardous substances under the US federal Superfund law, which addresses cleanup of toxic waste sites. This designation, in turn, would require companies or others to report releases of PFAS into the environment and make them liable for cleanup. In addition, it would allow the federal government to clean up PFAS-polluted sites and recoup the costs from polluters.

Deeming PFAS as hazardous substances “would help potentially hundreds of communities impacted by PFAS contamination to hold polluters accountable and get resources to finally begin the desperately needed cleanup process,” says Scott Faber, a senior vice president of the advocacy group Environmental Working Group (EWG). The organization and researchers from Northeastern University are tracking known PFAS contamination sites in the US, listing 172 locations in 40 states as of July 2018. EWG estimates that water supplies for as many as 110 million US residents may be tainted with PFAS.

Exposure to some PFAS chemicals is linked to adverse effects in the liver, kidney, blood, and immune system and in fetuses, according to the EPA. But little, if any, toxicity data exist for thousands more of these substances in commerce. Some PFAS are polymers, which are likely to pose little risk for health effects.

Because of the diversity of these chemicals, manufacturers are raising concerns about the legislation that would treat them all the same.

“It is scientifically unsound to consider regulations or policies that address PFAS chemistry as a uniform class. PFAS are a broad and diverse class ... including many different substances that vary significantly in their structures, properties, uses, and hazard profiles,” the FluoroCouncil, an industry group of companies that make, process, or formulate PFAS products, says in a statement. Any regulation of these substances, the council adds, “should be informed by a full understanding of the risks and benefits of different PFAS.”

In September, Democrats in the Senate urged the EPA to regulate PFAS in drinking water as a class rather than to control each chemical individually. The agency pledged to issue a national plan by the end of 2018 for managing PFAS contamination. That action is in limbo as the federal government shutdown continues.


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