A sea change in approach over how the EPA classifies PFAS forever chemicals will allow thousands to escape regulation and poses serious risks to our health. This begs the question: is the EPA looking out for Americans or for the chemical industry? Action Alert!
In contrast to almost all other regulatory authorities around the world, the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics plans to apply a case-by-case approach to how it classifies Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), arguing that this allows the agency to be more flexible in determining which chemicals should be subjected to regulation. This “flexibility” allows the EPA to sidestep an outright ban–that we and other have been calling for–and will be used to benefit industry, shielding companies from the need to find safer, non-PFAS alternatives or to prove their chemicals are safe.
As we detailed in our recent pilot study, which found concerning levels of PFAS in 7 of 8 kale samples we tested, we are facing a monumental crisis as we learn more about the prevalence of PFAS in the environment, in our bodies, in our food, air, and water, and in consumer goods. We need bold action to meet this crisis, but the EPA is utterly failing to step up.
In late June, the EPA announced the change as part of its new framework for evaluating new PFAS chemicals as well as new uses of older PFAS. The framework ditches the notion of using a tight definition for what constitutes a PFAS and calls for each chemical to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. This is a terrible idea and could allow thousands of PFAS forever chemicals to remain in use in pesticides and in pharmaceuticals – without any regulatory scrutiny or toxicological assessment at all. Former EPA officials have also indicated that the EPA is excluding some short-chain PFAS used as refrigerants—chemicals that are defined as PFAS by the European Union, but apparently not in the US.
As we indicated in our pilot study on PFAS in kale, we need to ban PFAS as a class rather than deal with each chemical individually, which isn’t practical when there are over 12,000 PFAS chemicals in current use.
It’s taken the EPA decades to even think about setting enforceable drinking water standards for just a few PFAS chemicals; the agency’s approach of assessing one chemical at a time is akin to doing nothing. And even if the EPA restricts or bans one chemical, industry can simply move on to the next one. The EPA is clearly thinking about protecting industry over the American people: PFAS chemicals can’t be banned as a class if there is no standardized definition of what constitutes a PFAS.
We previously critiqued the EPA’s “working definition” of PFAS because it excluded thousands of chemicals that were captured by better definitions devised by other entities like the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Speaking to the new definition, former EPA scientist and current head of the National Toxicology Program, Linda Birnbaum, told The Guardian: “This is not a new definition – it is a lack of definition, and it makes no sense. It is just going to lead to terrible confusion.”
Momentum has been building for some time to address the widespread contamination of our world and bodies with dangerous PFAS chemicals. They are nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they do not break down once they’re released given the remarkable strength of the carbon-fluorine bond in all PFAS, one of the strongest known in chemistry. They have been linked to a wide range of negative health effects, from metabolic disturbances linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes, immune system suppression, certain cancers, liver damage, pregnancy-induced hypertension and pre-eclampsia, through to birth and developmental defects.
The more we learn about these chemicals, the more serious the implications of continued use of PFAS becomes. In the last few weeks, we’ve learned that PFAS are found in the “eco-friendly” paper straws that are replacing plastic straws; a new study has shed more light on the cancer connection, showing that members of the Armed Forces exposed to PFAS-containing firefighting foam have a higher risk of developing testicular cancer; and new data from the EPA suggests that the drinking water of as many as 26 million Americans is contaminated with unsafe levels of PFAS.
It is beyond disappointing that, rather than meeting the challenge of PFAS contamination with a proportionate response, the EPA is shirking its responsibilities and giving chemical companies a pass—just like the FDA seems to be doing as independent testing contradicts the agency’s rosy view of the safety of our food supply. We recently reported that Congress is also largely ignoring the massive issue of PFAS contamination.
Decision-makers need to wake up. We need to ban these chemicals as a class before even more damage can be done. We need the American public to realize that it’s just not acceptable for government agencies to act as servants for industry, when they should be acting in the interests of the people.
Action Alert! Write to Congress in support of an outright ban on the entire PFAS class of chemicals. It’s just too late in the day to be playing PFAS Whac-A-Mole. Please send your message immediately.