What are PFAs?
Per- and Poly-flouralklys substances also known as PFAS are a group of human made chemicals. The chemicals have been used since the 1950s in items such as clothing, furniture, and non-stick cooking utensils. Humans are exposed to PFAS through contaminated water, eating food that is pakcaged with materials containing PFAS, and using different consumer products containing the chemicals. Since there are low levels of PFAS in the environment no one can completely eliminate their exposure to the chemicals.
PFAS have been a growing source of concern for government regulators because they do not break down in soil, can contaminate drinking water, and bioaccumulate in wildlife. Due to the fact that PFAS do not break down in typical environmental conditions they are known as “forever chemicals”. The effect that PFAS have on human health are largely unknown, but studies have shown that heavy exposure can lead to an increase in cholesterol, blood pressure, and risk of cancer.
Recent Legislation Related to PFAS
There has been a recent congressional effort to further regulate PFAS. The PFAS Action Act of 2021, was introduced by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in June of 2021. The act would classify certain PFAS as hazardous substances according to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The act would also require the EPA to determine if all PFAS should be classified as hazardous substances under CERCLA within five years. In addition, it would have required manufactures to label whether their products are or are not free of PFAS. The bill is currently in the Senate waiting for approval. The bill faces greater resistance in the Senate than in the House due to those in the water industry that oppose the bill.
EPA Regulation Regarding PFAS
On March 16, 2022 the EPA released a press release regarding PFAS and steps it is taking to regulate the class of chemicals. The EPA announced that manufactures, processors, distributors, users, and those that dispose of High Density Polyethylene (HDP) containers and similar plastics may violate Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) because of the presence of PFAS formed as a byproduct. The EPA also removed two specific PFAS from the safer chemical ingredients list (SCIL). As a result, these two PFAS may no longer be used in products that want to apply for safer choice certification.
In December of 2021 the EPA also published its fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, which requires sample collection for 29 PFAS between 2023 and 2025. This data collection aims to improve EPA’s understanding of the amount of PFAS in the national drinking water system.
Other EPA measures to Combat PFAS:
October 18, 2021 the EPA released the “PFAS Strategic Roadmap: EPA's Commitments to Action 2021-2024”. The Roadmap highlighted EPA’s approach to monitoring and reducing the general population's exposure to PFAS. In the Roadmap the EPA laid out three key actions in its approach: (1) Research; (2) Restrict; and (3) Remediate. In the “Research” step the EPA plans to invest in research, development, and innovation in order to gain a better understanding of the effects and toxicity of PFAS exposure in humans and the environment. In the “Restrict” step the EPA plans to pursue a comprehensive approach in order to prevent PFAS from entering air, land, and water at levels that could harm humans or the environment. In the “Remediate” step the EPA plans to accelerate and broaden the cleanup of PFAS in the environment.
The roadmap highlights that by 2024 the EPA plans to regulate PFAS output for specific industries. For example, the EPA plans to restrict PFAS discharged from certain industrial categories (ex. plastics, synthetic fibers) where existing data supports these reductions. There is also a plan to build a technical foundation for PFAS air emissions. Currently no PFAS are listed as hazardous air pollutants. However, the EPA plans to build a technical foundation to identify sources of PFAS air emissions. In addition, the foundation will develop approaches to measure PFAS emitted into the air, and cost effective mitigation technologies for the PFAS that are emitted.
Effects of Regulation on PFAS Levels:
The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) has measured the amount of PFAS in the blood of the U.S. population since 1999. Since 2002 the production of two certain types of PFAS (PFOS and PFOA) has declined. PFOS has gone down by 80 percent from 1999 to 2014. PFOA has declined by more than 60 percent from 1999 to 2014.
Human exposure to PFAS has been reduced through water filtration systems that have been installed throughout the country. For example, in 2006 a water filtration system in Minnesota was installed to reduce PFAS levels. This filtration system resulted in the reduction of the PFOS and PFOA in the drinking water below the current level recommended by the EPA. Also in 2008, 2010, and 2014 the Minnesota Department of Health meausred the PFAS levels in people who had been exposed to PFAS in their drinking water before the filtration system was installed. The measurements showed reduced levels of PFAS in long term residents of Minnesota. Regulation and efforts like the one in Minnesota has led to PFAS levels in the general American population to decrease.
EPA’s past initiatives and regulations have proven successful overtime. It is likely that the EPA’s continued efforts in the reduction of PFAS will lead to an even greater decrease in the PFAS exposure that Americans face.