Bill to Tackle PFAS Contamination in Drinking Water

Ryan Felton
·5 min read

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Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a bill on Tuesday that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to start regulating PFAS chemicals in drinking water and declare them hazardous substances, steps that would allow for the cleanup of contaminated sites across the country.

The legislation follows a recent investigation by Consumer Reports and the Guardian US news organization into the nation’s drinking water, which found measurable levels of PFAS—short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—in the vast majority of 120 water tap water samples taken around the U.S.

PFAS chemicals are used by manufacturers to make everything from nonstick cookware to stain-resistant fabric, and the compounds can seep into water from factories, landfills, and other sources. Because they don’t easily break down in the environment, they’re often called “forever chemicals.” Upward of 200 million people are estimated to be exposed to water contaminated by PFAS, according to estimates by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization.

Introduced by Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., the PFAS Action Act would take several steps to begin addressing that contamination.

“Let’s be very clear, PFAS is an urgent public health and environmental threat,” Dingell said in a statement. “And the number of contamination sites nationwide is growing at an alarming rate, including our military bases.”

“Setting drinking water standards and designating PFAS as hazardous substances under the EPA’s Superfund program will accelerate the clean-up process in communities and at military facilities all across this nation,” she added.

CRs’ safety advocates have endorsed the legislation, which has garnered bipartisan support.

“This bill is long overdue because, despite mounting evidence that PFAS contamination is widespread and can pose serious health risks, the EPA has failed to act to protect public health,” says Brian Ronholm, CR’s director of food policy.

What the Bill Would Do

The bill mirrors the PFAS Action Act of 2019, which passed by a bipartisan vote in the House but failed to gain traction in the Senate.

In particular, the legislation would require the EPA to establish national drinking water standards within two years for PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, and PFOS, or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, two well-studied PFAS compounds, which encompass a group of several thousand in total.

Currently, the agency has a voluntary guidance level at 70 parts per trillion combined.

Many public health experts think those levels are far too high, with some recommending limits of just 1 ppt for total PFAS.

CR’s chief scientific officer, James Dickerson, PhD, agrees that when it comes to PFAS, “the lower the better.” CR’s scientists say the maximum allowed amount should be 5 ppt for a single PFAS chemical and 10 ppt for two or more.

The EPA’s process to set limits for PFOA and PFOS is underway, but the traditional regulatory process would take several years to complete. The PFAS Action Act calls for standards to be set within two years.

Erik Olson, senior strategic director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, says that the PFAS crisis must be treated like a “five-alarm ‘house on fire.’”

“Toxic PFAS forever chemicals taint our water, soak our environment, and contaminate our bodies,” he said in an emailed statement. “The PFAS Action Act is a good first step towards finally addressing the thousands of toxic forever chemicals.”

The legislation would also define PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances within one year, which would force cleanup of known contaminated sites to begin, and require the EPA to determine whether to list other PFAS within five years. Discharge limits on industrial releases of PFAS would be set, too, and $200 million would be provided annually for wastewater treatment.

The two chemicals would also be designated as hazardous air pollutants within 180 days. Comprehensive PFAS health testing would be required, and it would also create a voluntary label for PFAS in cookware.

More PFAS Chemicals Exist

Several thousand other PFAS chemicals can be used by industrial manufacturers, and almost all are not covered under drinking water regulations.

For example, as part of CR’s recent investigation with the Guardian, a group of 120 volunteers tested their unfiltered tap water for 30 different kinds of PFAS. At least one PFAS chemical was detected in 117 of the samples. More than a third had levels above 10 ppt, and more than a quarter exceeded 5 ppt for a single PFAS chemical. Two samples had levels above the EPA’s advisory limit of 70 ppt.

Some manufacturers have been singled out by regulators for allegedly contaminating the environment with unregulated PFAS. Late last year, the state of New Jersey sued the manufacturer Solvay Specialty Polymers and alleged that the company had been using other unregulated PFAS for more than two decades, polluting water supplies in the process. Documents obtained by CR showed that regulators believe the PFAS substitute may be even more toxic than well-studied PFAS compounds and that it had been detected in the blood of Solvay workers.

“We need fast action on the whole toxic family of PFAS chemicals to eliminate them from our environment and bodies,” Olson says.

Nonetheless, CR senior scientist Michael Hansen, PhD, says the PFAS Action Act is a solid foundation to actively assess the contamination problem and begin tackling it head-on.

“If Congress fails to act soon, we run the risk of reaching the point of no return in being able to adequately address PFAS contamination,” Hansen says.