At a press conference in Philadelphia this morning, EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the long-awaited action plan for the class of toxic chemicals known as PFAS. During an ABC News interview last night, Wheeler called the chemicals “a very important threat.” Indeed, the scientific literature points to associations between PFAS exposure to kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, increased cholesterol, and hypertension in pregnant women. So what is EPA planning to do and is it enough to protect you and your family from the harmful effects of PFAS?
The lowdown on the plan
The plan is a regurgitation of the steps that former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt laid out last year, with no added urgency to meet the outcomes. The report is littered with vague language that gives EPA plenty of wiggle room when it comes to actually taking action.
First, the action plan claims it is “moving forward” quickly with the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) process under the Safe Drinking Water Act and will have a regulatory determination by the end of the year. This determination could mean no regulation at all. If an MCL is created for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most widely studied PFAS, every water provider would have to test for these chemicals regularly, be responsible for filtering out the chemicals to meet the safe level, and let consumers know how much of the chemical is in their water.
As the drinking water of millions of Americans has been contaminated with PFAS chemicals, it is absolutely necessary that EPA meaningfully move forward to set enforceable limits of PFOA and PFOS in water, rather than merely paying lip service. This process should of course incorporate the expertise of staff scientists at the agency and be informed by the best available science. But, as EPA hasn’t set a new MCL in over 20 years, it’s difficult for me to muster any confidence that this demonstrably anti-science administration will actually take serious action on this public health crisis.
Next, the plan indicates that EPA will work to classify two of the most well-known PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, as a hazardous substance under the Superfund statute, CERCLA. This is a necessary step in the right direction, but as enforcement actions have reached historically low levels at EPA, the agency must make sure that the Office of Land and Emergency Management has the staff and resources available to adequately remediate PFAS contamination as quickly as possible and to hold the companies responsible for these releases accountable for paying for its cleanup. The highest level of scrutiny on industry is unlikely as Peter Wright, the nominee to run this office, will enter with hundreds of sites belonging to his former employer DowDuPont—formerly one of the major producers of PFOA. While he has recused himself from involvement on these sites, it is unclear whether agency ethics officials will hold him to his commitment.
EPA’s action plan claims it will add more PFAS to the Unregulated Contaminated Monitoring Rule (UCMR) program so that more monitoring can be done across the country. The plan gives no indication which PFAS will be added or if EPA will continue to use its voluntary guidance of 70 ppt as the threshold, which is arguably not protective enough. This will surely help us understand the scope of the problem, but unless the UCMR includes all PFAS in the class, we still won’t have a real grasp of the current situation and the cumulative exposure. And while knowing is half the battle, what EPA plans to do with that knowledge to help communities is even more critical. Communities that have already been dealing with water contamination, like many families on or near military installations, should be included in health studies and medical monitoring programs.
The plan also includes vague language about how the EPA will “explore data availability” for listing PFAS chemicals on the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). If EPA does indeed make this change, it would give us a better idea of where these chemicals are produced and released into the environment by making that data publicly available. The plan also includes a strategy for expanding research efforts, including developing new analytical methods and tools to “close the gap on the science as quickly as possible,” which would be very useful. Lastly, the plan includes improvements to communicating PFAS risks, including a toolbox that states and local communities can use to educate the public. Whether or not these toolkits will actually be a useful resource to states and local communities will depend on how well the EPA engages these groups at all stages of development.
What the plan fails to do
It doesn’t plan to regulate PFAS as a class of chemicals, but rather focuses on the two most prevalent and well-studied of the group: PFOA and PFOS. This means that there are still thousands of other chemicals in that same class entering our waterways without any repercussions. Indeed, if EPA was monitoring for all these chemicals rather than just those two, it is almost certain that far more drinking water systems would have contamination well above the current health advisory levels.
The word action is used a whopping 186 number of times in the EPA’s plan, yet the words “accountable” and “responsible parties” are only found a total of 3 and 8 times, respectively. It doesn’t mention how it will ensure that the responsible polluters, most notably 3M, DuPont, and Chemours (a DuPont spinoff) will be held accountable for decades of knowingly poisoning communities downstream of their facilities. Also absent from the action plan is how EPA will work with the Department of Defense to address contamination at many military sites, where it is only starting to be addressed.
While the plan goes into the areas of research that EPA wants to explore, it doesn’t mention how it will help to fill the research gaps needed on the thousands of other PFAS that it has itself allowed on the market without proving safety. This research is necessary in order to regulate these chemicals properly. Additionally, PFAS-containing firefighting foams, one of the biggest sources of PFAS contamination, are now being disposed of at military sites by incineration, the safety of which has not been thoroughly tested. And putting these foams or byproducts in landfills so that they can leach back into the groundwater near communities who are already bearing a chemical burden isn’t a feasible solution either. EPA needs to dedicate funding to research into safe methods of disposal so that getting rid of these chemicals doesn’t turn out to be even more dangerous than keeping them around.
Talking about action to clean up PFAS is one thing, but EPA must accompany its actions with a more genuine commitment to move away from the use of PFAS as a class. The health effects of these chemicals have been known about for decades, yet the federal agencies have sat on the science and allowed thousands of these chemicals to enter the market, the waterways, and our bloodstreams. It’s high time that more action is taken on the front-end to prove that these chemicals are safe so that individuals living downstream of manufacturers and on or near military bases are not the ones who bear the burden of proving their harm. Wheeler could learn a thing or two about actual action from the states who have taken the lead on protecting their residents from PFAS contamination thanks to the pressure applied by the many community groups across the country.
The man with the plan
After revealing the plan at today’s press conference, Wheeler told the crowd of concerned members of the public and reporters that “Americans count on the EPA every time they turn on their faucet,” and that the agency was “stepping up to provide the leadership the public needs and deserves.” He’s right. We do count on the EPA, but sadly, this administration’s anti-science track record means that our trust in the agency has plummeted. And this action plan doesn’t give me any more confidence in its commitment to keep us safe.
Being that today is Valentine’s Day, I can’t help but think about trust and relationships. Relationship experts usually say that a good way to learn about someone is to look at the company they keep. It’s hard to have confidence that the same man who lobbied on behalf of a coal company for years as it advocated for fewer regulations could be genuinely serious about more strictly regulating a whole class of profitable chemicals. Wheeler also just appointed science advisors whose opinions lie outside the mainstream, including one woman who has actually testified on behalf of 3M in defense of PFAS.
Another piece of advice that relationship experts espouse is that you should never go into a relationship expecting that a person will change: they are who they are. I have no reason to believe that Acting Administrator Wheeler will prove them wrong and go from coal industry lobbyist to champion of public health, which is why senators should think long and hard about their votes when it comes time to confirm him as Administrator.
This wishy-washy plan demands strong congressional oversight. Take meaningful action today by contacting your members of congress to urge them to join the recently created PFAS task force (and scientists- you can use your expertise to encourage Congressional oversight here).