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Virtually everyone has been exposed to “forever chemicals,” human-made compounds that linger in environments — and bodies — for decades. Polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl compounds, also known as PFAS, have long been associated with a range of health issues, yet have been left largely unregulated. That makes the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent proposal to classify the two most common forms of PFAS as “hazardous” an important step forward.
PFAS are found in thousands of household items, from nonstick pans to fabrics to cosmetics. What makes them so useful is also what makes them uniquely risky: Because they contain extremely strong carbon-fluorine bonds that do not occur in nature, they are very durable — and very difficult to dispose of. PFAS chemicals have been discovered at unhealthful levels in millions of Americans’ drinking water, and have been linked to cancer, infertility and cardiovascular problems, among other conditions.
The EPA’s proposed rule would add two common types of PFAS to its list of hazardous substances under the “Superfund” law. The designation unlocks a range of additional powers. It would require companies to report a release of one pound or more of these compounds over a 24-hour span. Crucially, the rule would grant the federal government stronger authority to force polluters to pay for cleanup or — if the polluter is unknown or bankrupt — fund the restoration itself.
Many contaminated sites are located in military facilities, because PFAS are a key ingredient in firefighting foam. The proposed regulation would also require the Defense Department to consider state standards, which can be stricter than federal ones.
Industry groups have argued that the rule would impose undue burdens on manufacturers and could be used to hold companies liable for minor or historic contamination. Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have called for authorities to instead prioritize technology to break down these compounds. These objections are unconvincing. The two types of PFAS at issue, PFOA and PFOS, have largely been phased out of U.S. manufacturing, and the EPA has said it does not intend to focus on minor sources of contamination. And while scientists have made strides in destruction technology, these techniques are not ready to be launched commercially or at scale.
The EPA’s new proposal, which will now be subject to a 60-day comment period, is part of a suite of measures enacted by the Biden administration. In June, agency officials released new health advisories for PFAS, concluding that these substances can have pernicious health effects at near-zero levels over a lifetime. The agency is also working on mandatory drinking water standards for the compounds. In addition, Superfund will get a boost from the bipartisan infrastructure law and Inflation Reduction Act, which reinstated taxes on polluters to fund cleanups.
It’s good news that the administration is beginning to take action on “forever chemicals.” But the proposed rule targets just two of approximately 12,000 types of PFAS, found in an estimated 41,000 sites across the country. The EPA has said it will seek public comment on whether to designate more of these compounds as hazardous. That process will be critical for crafting effective regulation — and for protecting hundreds of millions of Americans exposed to these toxic, enduring substances.