EPA to make de­ci­sion on chem­i­cal com­pounds linked to health risks


The chem­i­cal com­pounds are all around you. They’re on many fab­rics, rugs and car­pets, cook­ing pots and pans, out­door gear, sham­poo, shav­ing cream, makeup and even den­tal floss. In­creas­ing num­bers of states have found them seep­ing into wa­ter sup­plies.

There’s grow­ing ev­i­dence that longterm ex­po­sure to the per­flu­o­roalkyl and polyflu­o­roalkyl com­pounds, or PFAS, can be dan­ger­ous, even in tiny amounts.

The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency is look­ing at how to re­spond to a pub­lic push for stricter reg­u­la­tion of the chem­i­cals, in pro­duc­tion since the 1940s.

A de­ci­sion is ex­pected soon. At hear­ings around the coun­try last year, lo­cal and state of­fi­cials asked the agency to set a max­i­mum level for PFAS in drink­ing wa­ter na­tion­wide. It will take that, of­fi­cials said, to stop con­tam­i­na­tion and hold pol­lut­ing par­ties re­spon­si­ble.

But it’s more than a U.S. prob­lem. In Europe, Aus­tralia, Asia and else­where, reg­u­la­tors and con­sumers are con­fronting dis­cov­er­ies of PFAS con­tam­i­na­tion, espe­cially around U.S. mil­i­tary bases, where they’re used in fire­fight­ing foam.

What are PFAS?

In­dus­tries use the chem­i­cals in coat­ings meant to pro­tect con­sumer goods from stains, wa­ter and cor­ro­sion.

DuPont says its sci­en­tists in­vented the ear­li­est form of the non­stick com­pound in 1938. They were im­pressed with how wa­ter and grease slipped off the new sub­stance and how it seemed never to break down — winning it the name “for­ever com­pound.” Var­i­ous types soon were on the mar­ket, first in Te­flon prod­ucts. Thou­sands of vari­ants have been pro­duced since then, for a host of uses.

By the 1970s, man­u­fac­tur­ers con­ceded that PFAS were build­ing up in the bodies of em­ploy­ees who worked with them. Re­cent sci­en­tific re­ports have es­ti­mated that nearly all peo­ple in the U.S. have some PFAS chem­i­cals in their blood. Stud­ies of work­ers ex­posed on the job and peo­ple who drank con­tam­i­nated wa­ter, in ad­di­tion to lab analy­ses of an­i­mals, have pointed to ties be­tween some PFAS types and hu­man ill­ness.

In­dus­tries have phased out two of the most-stud­ied ver­sions of PFAS. Man­u­fac­tur­ers say newer forms are safer and don’t re­main in the hu­man body as long as older types. Some re­searchers say too lit­tle is known about them to be sure of that.

What does the sci­ence say? DuPont agreed to a court-su­per­vised pub­lic health study af­ter a farmer in Park­ers­burg, West Vir­ginia, brought a law­suit blam­ing runoff from a PFAS fa­cil­ity for the deaths of his cat­tle. The 2005-2013 study mon­i­tored and tested nearly 70,000 peo­ple who had been drink­ing wa­ter tainted with PFOA, one of two kinds of PFAS since phased out of pro­duc­tion.

The study found “prob­a­ble links” be­tween high lev­els of PFOA in the body and ex­ces­sive choles­terol lev­els, ul­cer­a­tive col­i­tis, thy­roid dis­ease, tes­tic­u­lar and kid­ney can­cer, and prob­lems in preg­nan­cies.

The fed­eral Agency for Toxic Sub­stances and Dis­ease Reg­istry said last year that med­i­cal stud­ies pointed to “as­so­ci­a­tions” be­tween the in­dus­trial com­pounds and those ail­ments, and also to liver prob­lems, low birth weight and other health is­sues.

The fed­eral tox­i­col­ogy re­port also says EPA’s “advisory level” of 70 parts per tril­lion of PFOA and PFOS — the two older, phased-out ver­sions — in drink­ing wa­ter is too weak. Be­fore the re­port was re­leased, a White House email dis­closed by Politico called it a “po­ten­tial pub­lic re­la­tions night­mare.”

How wide­spread is ex­po­sure? EPA-man­dated test­ing of about 5,000 of the roughly 150,000 pub­lic wa­ter sys­tems in the U.S. that was com­pleted in 2016 found dan­ger­ous lev­els of the same two PFAS com­pounds in 66 sys­tems. Lo­cal and state test­ing since then has iden­ti­fied high lev­els in scores of ad­di­tional sys­tems.

Con­tam­i­nated ma­te­ri­als are dis­posed of in land­fills and sewage treat­ment sys­tems. Fire­fight­ing foams are sprayed on the ground. The chem­i­cals seep into soils, wa­ter­ways, sed­i­ments and ground­wa­ter; some are in­cin­er­ated, gen­er­at­ing air pol­lu­tion.

Many states aren’t wait­ing for the EPA, par­tic­u­larly re­gard­ing ground­wa­ter and, more re­cently, drink­ing wa­ter.

New Jer­sey and Ver­mont are among those that have set stan­dards more strin­gent than the EPA’s; New Hamp­shire may join them.

New York is con­sid­er­ing the tough­est stan­dard yet. In De­cem­ber, a state drink­ing wa­ter com­mis­sion rec­om­mended a max­i­mum limit of 10 parts per tril­lion for PFOA and PFOS. That fol­lows rev­e­la­tions of wide­spread PFAS con­tam­i­na­tion in sev­eral com­mu­ni­ties.

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