A “Strategic Roadmap” released Oct. 18 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to deal with pollution related to manufacture and use of Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances increases regulatory controls and adds a new and speedier path to PFAS contamination cleanup.
The plan is centered around restricting release of PFAS into the environment; expediting remediation at contaminated sites; and boosting funds for research, with EPA setting specific actions and deadlines for each.
Announcing the plan at a North Carolina press conference, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan highlighted upcoming actions, including regulating PFAS under the federal Safe Water Drinking Act, which would set limits in drinking water. Particular PFAS chemicals will be deemed hazardous substances and be regulated under the Superfund program.
“Where we find contamination we will seek necessary monitoring and cleanup from polluters,” said Regan.
EPA plans to work with a number of federal agencies, including the departments of Health and Human Services and Defense, to identify contaminated facilities and will partner with the latter to “conduct research into testing and control technologies” to help federal agencies and communities deal with PFAS contamination, Regan said.
PFAS has been used in U.S. military installations for decades, notably in fire-fighting foam for petroleum-based fires. A July 2021 DoD Inspector General’s report found that that although the agency had addressed that type of contamination, it had not done so for other types of PFAS chemicals at sites.
“EPA cannot solve the problem of ‘forever chemicals’ by tackling one route of exposure or one use at a time,” reads the Roadmap. “Rather, EPA needs to take a lifecycle approach to PFAS in order to make meaningful progress.” This requires addressing both downstream and upstream impacts, it says.
PFAS, consisting of thousands of synthetic chemicals, are used for a variety of applications including waterproofing and grease resistance, and are found in a wide range of products. Because they are slow to break down, they are nicknamed “forever chemicals,” and can accumulate in the human body as well as on land and in water systems. They are linked to health problems including kidney and testicular cancer, suppression of the immune system and high cholesterol.
Regan discussed plans to attain and manage information around the large class of chemicals, including a requirement that PFAS manufacturers provide detailed disclosures of PFAS toxicity in chemicals they produce, initially proposed as a rule in June. “It would take EPA decades to do this on our own,” said Regan. EPA will also make changes to how it considers the chemicals, linking them in related categories or groups, rather than considering each on an individual basis.
A wide range of construction materials contains PFAS. Hannah Ray, Science and Policy Fellow at the Green Science Policy Institute, suggests proactive measures. Changes “should motivate the construction sector at a minimum to begin to track PFAS in their products and up their supply chains,” she told ENR. “In the long-term, the building industry should remove unnecessary PFAS wherever possible and innovate safer alternative materials or system designs to remove the need for PFAS at all.”
Geoff Gisler, senior attorney and leader of the Clean Water Program at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said EPA’s Roadmap “charts a course to important new protections.” He headed up litigation against Chemours, a spinoff of chemicals maker DuPont, to prevent the company from releasing GenX and other PFAS into the air, groundwater and the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, leading in 2018 to a consent order with the company.
“We have seen in North Carolina that when permitting agencies require industrial polluters to comply with existing laws, PFAS water pollution can be stopped at the source,” he added.