EPA’s New PFAS Definition Will Make it Harder to Protect the Public

August 22, 2023 | 12:45 pm
EPA headquartersUSEPA
Anita Desikan
Senior Analyst

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics has made an unusual change that will make the regulation of PFAS chemicals even harder, potentially letting thousands of these dangerous “forever chemicals” escape EPA regulation, thereby endangering the health of millions of people. Specifically, the EPA office says it is planning to define PFAS on a “case-by-case” basis during rulemaking and agency actions, scrapping the idea of a standardized definition of PFAS based on the best available science to guide their policymaking decisions. The move departs from the best practices of other EPA offices, other federal agencies, the European Union, Canada, and most of the scientific community.

Rather than aiming for consistency, the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics is going for an approach that puts the cart before the horse by determining the scope of the rule before fully defining PFAS chemicals. The EPA’s plan essentially allows them to limit the definition of PFAS to cover only those chemicals they had already planned to regulate when they scoped out the rule. This is the equivalent of a child, after being told to clean their room and seeing what a big job it is, trying to redefine the definition of their room so as to only have to clean up a smaller part.

When some PFAS chemicals are allowed to be considered outside the agency’s definition, this means that these chemicals will not be covered by EPA actions, and can therefore continue to pose harm to the public’s health and safety. This is not how science-based policymaking is supposed to work. The definition of PFAS chemicals should be standardized, and based on the best available science. Such a standardized definition avoids confusion, is more efficient, offers a first step on the road toward regulating PFAS chemicals as a class, and helps ensure that science is at the forefront of the policymaking process protecting public health and the environment.

EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics has already been criticized for its previous approaches to defining PFAS chemicals (more on that in a minute), but it is especially problematic to shift to an approach that calls for redefining PFAS chemicals with every rulemaking action. As Dr. Linda Birnbaum, a former EPA scientist and head of the National Toxicology Program, put it, “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.”

Defining PFAS chemicals

PFAS chemicals (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are industrial chemicals that can repel water, oil and grease and are found in countless consumer products. The main thing that differentiates PFAS chemicals from other compounds are their chains of carbon-fluorine bonds, one of the strongest chemical bonds ever discovered. Because it takes a huge amount of energy to break down these bonds, PFAS chemicals mostly build up in the human body over time, which can lead to a variety of different health conditions, including altered immune and thyroid function, liver disease, lipid and insulin dysregulation, kidney disease, adverse reproductive and developmental outcomes, and cancer.

In the scientific literature, the definition of PFAS has been a subject of rich and sometimes confusing debate, but the most widely used and inclusive definition is one developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2021. The OECD defines PFAS as any chemical that has at least one fully fluorinated carbon atom, which mostly refers to that carbon-fluorine bond (see the report for more information). The OECD definition was based on a multi-stakeholder international effort that spent three years reviewing the science to develop this robust and practical definition.

In the past, the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics had adopted a “working definition” that stood at odds with most of the scientific community. It was far narrower than the OECD’s definition and failed to include thousands of PFAS chemicals under their purview. The working definition excluded certain refrigerants and PFAS gases. Additionally, the working definition excluded some PFAS chemicals that, when metabolized by the human body or broken down in the environment, can turn into PFOA and PFOS, the two most-studied PFAS chemicals. PFOA and PFOS are so well known for their highly toxic properties that most of EPA’s PFAS actions, as guided by their PFAS Roadmap, are set up to target these two PFAS chemicals.

Playing into industry’s hands

By failing to codify a PFAS definition grounded in science, the EPA office is playing into industry’s hands. A lack of a PFAS definition gives industry the opportunity to more easily draw upon their disinformation playbook, particularly by using the tactic of manufacturing uncertainty to cast doubt on the science. Absent a science-based definition for PFAS, industry can gain an advantage by pressing the EPA to accept limited PFAS definitions that allow them to avoid regulation.

This is not just conjecture; this situation happened before with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in the 1970s and 1980s—highly toxic chemicals that were banned by the EPA in 1979. In one court case from 1980, the EPA argued that Dow Chemical Company was manufacturing PCBs in violation of its ban enacted under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Dow’s argument was that the ban did not apply because what they were manufacturing could not be defined as PCBs (even though they were). Attempts to re-define PCBs to benefit industry activities also occurred in two other court cases (see here and here).

In other words, there is ample evidence to show that industry knows it can take advantage of the situation when the EPA lacks a standardized science-based definition of a chemical.

Needed: a science-driven process

While the EPA office did laudably move away from its problematic working definition for PFAS, its new plan is unsustainable. Relying on a process that redefines PFAS for every action will open the door to industry influence and make it difficult, if not impossible, to compare EPA’s PFAS actions across the agency.

The EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics is an important office. It plays a fundamental role in evaluating and determining the risk of new and existing chemicals and finds ways to prevent or reduce pollution before it gets into the environment. The office is also responsible for managing programs under a variety of environmental laws, including the main law that governs how we regulate chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Using a “case-by-case” approach for something as fundamental as the definition of PFAS makes it far easier to have unnecessary political intrusions into what should be science-based processes. Such an approach may also negatively impact efforts currently underway at the EPA to strengthen scientific integrity policies and foster a culture of scientific integrity at the agency.

This EPA office needs to do better. The office in question is housed under the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, where several whistleblower scientists in 2021 reported that numerous scientific integrity violations have occurred for years, including with PFAS risk assessments.

The EPA will soon open their new scientific integrity policy for public comment; you can act now to let the agency know that you value a strong culture of scientific integrity that includes putting science at the forefront of its decisionmaking processes for PFAS and other toxic substances.