According to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, the Biden administration’s plan for regulating so-called “forever chemicals” represents a meaningful step toward cleaner drinking water and safer communities. “This is a really bold set of actions for a big problem,” Regan told the Washington Post. “There are concrete steps that we are taking that move this issue forward in a very aggressive way.” 

But many environmental advocates see the plan, which was announced on Monday, as a flop.

“It’s horrific,” said Kyla Bennett, science policy director with the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER. “I actually had PTSD reading it because I felt like I was still under the Trump administration.”

The EPA proposal aims to regulate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a group of more than 9,000 human-made compounds whose strong carbon-fluorine bonds prevent them from breaking down over time — hence the name “forever chemicals.” The compounds have water-repellent properties that have made them useful in everything from nonstick cookware to outdoor clothing, but they have also been linked to myriad health problems: kidney cancer, liver damage, and high cholesterol, just to name a few. Recent research even suggests that prolonged PFAS exposure may increase the risk of severe illness and death from COVID.

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In a speech detailing the EPA’s “Strategic Roadmap” toward PFAS regulation, Regan said the agency will invest in research to better understand the compounds, restrict PFAS from contaminating the environment, and work to clean up highly polluted areas. By the end of 2021, he said, chemical manufacturers will be required to test and report concentrations for 20 subcategories of PFAS in consumer goods. The EPA will also set enforceable drinking water standards for two of the worst PFAS — known as PFOA and PFOS — and finalize its toxicity assessments for six additional compounds.

Some activists lauded the roadmap as a win for environmental justice; PFAS tends to contaminate impoverished neighborhoods and communities of color. Geoff Gisler, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement that the roadmap could help “change the landscape in our efforts to protect communities from PFAS pollution.”

But other environmental advocates have said the plan doesn’t go far enough. In a press release, PEER called it “woefully inadequate” and listed numerous “crippling” shortcomings, such as its failure to set an enforceable drinking water standard for compounds beyond PFOA and PFOS. And even for those two compounds, Bennett said, the agency’s timeline was protracted — the roadmap announced it would only come up with standards in a year or more. Bennett accused the EPA of “planning to plan,” rather than coming up with quantitative regulations right off the bat. 

“This isn’t an action plan, it’s an inaction plan,” Bennett said.

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Robert Bilott, the lawyer whose legal battle against DuPont over PFAS contamination was depicted in the 2019 movie Dark Waters, agreed: “Where is the actual ACTION by EPA here?” he tweeted. “It’s been over 20 years since we asked EPA to take enforceable concrete action on PFAS and still more talk and ‘plans’ to act maybe next year or… the year after that…”

The EPA did not respond to Grist’s request for comment in time for publication.

A waterway in Fountain, Colorado
Because PFAS don’t break down naturally, they can accumulate in the environment and build up in water systems, as they have in the Fountain, Colorado, watershed. Joe Amon / MediaNews Group / The Denver Post via Getty Images

Bennett described the EPA’s plan to regulate individual PFAS or small subgroups as “whack-a-mole.” It would be more efficient and health-protective, she said, if the EPA were to regulate all 9,000-plus PFAS at once — potentially as hazardous substances under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.  

“We’re talking about thousands of chemicals,” Bennett said. “They need to define PFAS as a broad class and regulate them all, even if they don’t have toxicity data for all of them.” Bennett said the EPA’s voluntary stewardship program, which in the mid-2000s encouraged manufacturers to move away from PFOS and PFOA, led to a proliferation of “regrettable substitutions” — unregulated, industry-made replacements for PFOA and PFOS. These compounds, such as one called GenX, are still PFAS, but their health consequences are less understood than those of PFOS and PFOA.

Mark Axelrod, an associate professor of environmental politics at Michigan State University, said the EPA’s decision to categorize PFAS into 20 subcategories may have been a middle-ground approach — a nod to both environmental advocates who want class-wide regulations and to those who worry that broad restrictions would bar relatively inert PFAS from being used by manufacturers.

“As one might expect, the middle ground doesn’t please anybody,” he said.

Laurie Valeriano, executive director of the science advocacy group Toxic-Free Future, said in a statement that the Biden EPA was falling behind other regulators in the push for safer PFAS standards. “EPA is failing,” she said, while some states “are taking prevention-based actions” by phasing out some PFAS-containing products altogether and setting more stringent standards for human exposure to the compounds. 

The EPA’s current, nonbinding health advisory for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water is 70 parts per trillion, a number that is significantly out of step with guidelines that have been set by individual states. For PFOA, New Jersey has set ​​an enforceable maximum contaminant level, or MCL, of 14 parts per trillion. New Hampshire’s MCL is 12. New York and Michigan’s MCLs are even less than that. Even these levels may pose risks to public health; the Environmental Working Group in 2019 suggested that drinking water should have a PFAS concentration of no more than 1 part per trillion, and a recent proposal from California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment would reduce allowable PFAS levels to just 7 parts per quadrillion for PFOA.

Some environmental groups have said there is no safe exposure limit for PFAS, suggesting a maximum contaminant level goal of zero.

Why hasn’t the EPA moved more swiftly to regulate PFAS? Bennett noted that the compounds are complicated and numerous. “But they’re also getting pressure from industry,” she added. For example, when Michigan introduced more stringent PFAS limits for drinking water earlier this year, the state was sued by 3M, a PFAS manufacturer. The company filed a similar suit against New Hampshire in 2019.

“These companies have deep pockets, they’d rather keep putting this stuff out on the market,” Bennett said. “Until it gets outlawed, they’re gonna fight it every step of the way.”

In response to Grist’s request for comment, 3M said it disagreed on specific components of the EPA roadmap, but that it was committed to working with the Biden administration to “promote science-based regulation of PFAS.”

Zoya Teirstein contributed reporting to this story.

Editor’s note: The Southern Environmental Law Center is an advertiser with Grist. Advertisers have no role in Grist’s editorial decisions.

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