The Biden administration is throwing down the regulatory gauntlet against "forever chemicals," a family of chemically resilient substances used in the manufacture of many consumer goods that are extremely useful yet toxic and all over the environment.
The Environmental Protection Agency has advanced nearly two dozen actions over the past two years ranging from tighter drinking water monitoring requirements to new restrictions on manufacturing to control the proliferation of PFAS, shorthand for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which have been linked to cancer and some birth defects.
The agency expects to propose or finalize at least six rulemakings dealing with PFAS this calendar year, part of President Joe Biden's larger environmental agenda to crack down on pollution from power plants and industrial sources.
PFAS is a large group of chemicals made up of some 1,400 individual substances used in the manufacture of everyday products such as food packaging, sunscreens, stain-resistant carpeting, guitar strings, firefighting foams, and non-stick cooking pans.
The carbon-fluorine bond instrumental in PFAS is very strong and doesn't break down easily, making it water- and heat-resistant and, therefore, useful in common products.
In firefighting applications, for example, the compounds effectively wedge themselves between the burning material and oxygen to smother the fire.
Despite their commercial utility, researchers have found probable links between some PFAS and incidence of various diseases, including kidney and testicular cancers.
Some of the foundational research was undertaken on residents near a DuPont factory in Parkersburg, West Virginia, as part of a class action lawsuit the chemical giant ultimately settled. The case was the focus of a 2019 film called Dark Waters.
The researchers found high concentrations of perfluorooctanoic acid, a PFAS used in the manufacture of Teflon, in blood samples of participants. Epidemiologists who reviewed the data and participants' medical histories concluded there was a "probable" link between the exposure and disease.
Such risks are fueling the campaign to limit their escape into groundwater and the food supply, where the presence of PFAS has become "incredibly ubiquitous," said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.
EWG, an environmental non-profit group pushing for stricter PFAS regulation, mapped some 2,800 sites in the U.S. where PFAS has been measured in drinking and groundwater supplies.
PFAS can proliferate from releases from manufacturing facilities and spread through groundwater, wastewater, and crop irrigation, Benesh told the Washington Examiner.
"Virtually every living thing on the planet has some amount of PFAS in their blood, so they've really polluted the world over," she said.
The Biden EPA launched a PFAS Strategic Roadmap in October 2021, a detailed plan of actions it plans to take to regulate the chemicals more tightly, and the agency has used different authorities to go after PFAS contamination.
EPA most recently proposed a "significant new use rule" under the Toxic Substances Control Act that would effectively prevent companies from starting or resuming the manufacture, processing, or use of some 300 different PFAS without prior approval from the EPA.
In August, EPA proposed designating two PFAS, including the perfluorooctanoic acid implicated in the West Virginia DuPont case, as "hazardous substances" under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.
Two months earlier, EPA proposed updated interim drinking water health advisories for perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, effectively determining that no level of their consumption is safe.
The latest science indicates that "some negative health effects may occur" even at levels that are "near zero and below EPA’s ability to detect at this time," EPA said.
Some Republicans, including Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), have supported measures to limit PFAS pollution. Capito introduced legislation during the last Congress that would incentivize airports, where crews regularly test firefighting equipment, to purchase equipment designed to detect and limit the spread of PFAS, such as would emanate from firefighting foam.
She and other GOP members of Congress have at the same time criticized Biden's PFAS regulatory proposals for being unworkable.
EPA's interim drinking water health advisories for PFAS set "impossible levels," Capito said when they were proposed.
"No water system in the country — in fact, not even bottled water — will be able to demonstrate compliance with standards EPA has set today," she said.
Industry has generally argued EPA should avoid regulations that loop scores of PFAS together with blanket regulations and instead treat them separately on the grounds that they are not all equally toxic, according to Benesh.
Industrial giant 3M, which has committed to discontinuing PFAS manufacturing by the end of 2025, argued EPA's June 2021 proposed rule to require more extensive reporting on the manufacture of some 1,000 PFAS was "overbroad" and should discriminate between those PFAS with a significant research record and those without.
"Any rulemaking by EPA should focus solely on substances for which EPA already has a documented basis for concern based on available toxicity and exposure data," 3M said. "This data does not exist for all PFAS."
Benesh said only regulating PFAS in such a piecemeal way would be regulatory "whack-a-mole" and too difficult for the agency to carry out effectively.
"We know that all of these chemicals are persistent, and so when they're released into the environment, they will stay there, and we may not have good toxicity data on some of them," Benesh said.
"We need to make assumptions, some assumptions about the class as a whole because EPA doesn't have the capacity to study every single one of these 1000-plus chemicals and determining exactly how toxic each one is," she said.