As the number of communities in the U.S. discovering high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) continues to grow, congressional leaders are intensifying efforts to find legislative solutions to address the pervasive problem.
PFAS is a class of man-made chemicals used to manufacture firefighting foam and many household products, including cookware and clothing. Animal, human and scientific studies have shown the chemicals can be toxic, and can cause illnesses, such as pancreatic and testicular cancer, as well as thyroid disease. High levels of PFAS have been found in both wastewater and biosolids, as well as in drinking water systems.
As of March 2019, at least 610 locations in 43 states were known to be contaminated with PFAS chemicals, including drinking water systems serving about 19 million people, the Social Science Environmental Health Institute in Boston said. The number of known contaminated sites was 172 in July 2018.
At a Sept. 10 hearing, Democrats and some Republicans on the House Oversight Committee asked witnesses what lawmakers could do to begin to address the problem, including revising laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Comprehensive Environmental, Response, Compensation and Liability act to speed remediation of contaminated sites. They also chided officials from the companies that manufactured the products—3M and Dupont—for maintaining that their products were safe, when animal and human studies done by their own researchers showed that PFAS chemicals used in their products were harmful to wildlife and humans.
Subcommittee Chairman Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), said although he considers himself a ‘compassionate capitalist,” “the companies here today need to be held accountable.”
Seventy sites contaminated with PFAS have been identified in Michigan and Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), said her state is just the tip of the iceberg. “As more states begin to test, we are going to see more,” she said. “This affects Republican and Democratic districts; it’s not a partisan issue,” she said, adding, “Government officials at all levels must work together to determine how to clean up current PFAS contamination, clean it up quickly and efficiently as possible, and prevent any further contaminations and dangers going forward.”
Republican Bob Gibbs of Ohio asked Bob Bilott, an attorney who has worked on lawsuits against the manufacturers of PFAS for two decades, whether there has been enough research to be able to say whether the entire class of PFAS chemicals—which includes some 5,000 compounds--is dangerous. Bilott said, “The chemical similarity of the compounds suggests that we need to be looking at the entire class.” He added that “We have enough information on PFOA, one of the PFAS compounds, to act now,” he said.
The corporations testifying at the hearing were Dupont; Chemours, a Dupont spinoff established in 2015 to house the company’s Teflon lines and other products manufactured with PFAS; and 3M. In her testimony, Denise Rutherford, senior vice president of corporate affairs at 3M, noted that 3M voluntary phased out PFOA and PFOS use in 2000 and is working with the state of Minnesota to support “ongoing remediation” of sites where 3M played a role.
A $739-million settlement, reached between the state of Minnesota and 3M in 2018, established a working group to determine how to appropriate funds from the settlement for drinking water and other solutions at sites and drinking water systems contaminated with PFAS.