Backyard Talk

What is PFAS, where is it, and what is government doing about it in 2019?

By: Daisy Clennon

PFAS is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. It is an umbrella term for manmade chemicals that have a carbon and fluorine atom backbone. PFAS encompasses PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) as well as hundreds of other compounds. PFAS are used in industrial processes and consumer products such as non-stick cookware, grease resistant paper, fast food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, stain-resistant carpets and fabrics, cleaning products, and more. PFAS frequently get into groundwater though industrial factories, military bases, and also because they are used in firefighting foams. PFAS contaminates soil and water and can contaminate food grown in contaminated circumstances.

PFAS take a very long time to break down, so they build up in organs and tissues. Scientists are still learning about the health risks from PFAS, but the chemicals have been linked to affecting growth, learning, and behavior of children, lowering a woman’s chance of pregnancy, interfering with the body’s natural hormones, increasing cholesterol, affecting the immune system, and increasing risk of cancer. Lab animals exposed to PFAS have shown problems with liver, thyroid, and pancreatic functions. PFAS has been widely used since the 1950s and has recently come to national attention through crises in Hoosick Falls, NY, Plainfield Township, MI, Parkersburg, W. VA, and Parchment, MI.

So far, PFAS have been found in dozens of states, including Vermont, New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Colorado, New York, North Carolina, West Virginia, Washington, Kansas, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Alabama, Minnesota, California. Many impacted communities are near military bases, airports, and industrial sites, where PFAS are used. Most people in the United States have some level of PFAS in their body. A sample done by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that the average blood levels of PFAS in Americans are as follows: PFOA  is 2.1 parts per billion, the average level of PFOS is 6.3 parts per billion, and the average level of PFHxS is 1.3 parts per billion.

So what is being done in 2019 about this contaminant?

State level bills about PFAS are working their way through at least 13 states, including Michigan, Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Connecticut. Many bills center around making sure PFAS can’t be used in firefighting foam or in food packaging. States are also struggling to set PFAS contaminant levels. A Michigan state bill would limit PFOA and PFOS to 5 parts per trillion, considerably lower than the EPA advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion. After a PFOA crisis in Bennington, Vermont state legislators set the limit to 20 parts per trillion for PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, PFHpA, and PFNA combined.

On the federal level, a bipartisan bill has been introduced that would add PFAS to the list of chemicals covered by CERCLA (Superfund) legislation. This would allow the EPA to work towards cleaning up PFAS sites. Furthermore, on January 23rd, Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania initiated a bipartisan task force with at least 18 other Congress members. The task force will hold informational events to educate other members of Congress about PFAS, craft legislation to address PFAS contamination, meet with committee chairs to ensure PFAS is addressed, and fight for funding through federal appropriations to clean up PFAS contamination.

The EPA has not yet released its decision on adding PFAS to Superfund legislation. Reports say they will not be regulating PFAS through the Safe Drinking Water Act. This has not been confirmed, but lawmakers have slammed the apparent decision. Michigan legislators have said that they will act if the EPA refuses to. Rep. Kildee said that “while the Trump administration has claimed it wants to address PFAS, they have been all talk and no action,” and the other leader of the bipartisan task force, Rep. Fitzpatrick, said “If the EPA refuses to do its job, Congress must intercede.”

You can track policy details for state PFAS legislation here, and keep up to date with PFAS news here.

You can also sign this petition, to tell Congress to enact a total ban on the production and use of PFAS by 2020. CHEJ is planning a training call/webinar with Nationwide PFAS Coalition that will provide a general overview of the PFAS situation nationally, and include a discussion of what groups are working on now at the state and federal level.

UPDATE: EPA released their action plan on Thursday, February 14th. The plan lists PFOA and PFOS as pollutants or contaminants under CERCLA (Superfund), but not as a hazardous substance. EPA has “initiated the regulatory development process to designate PFOA and PFOS as CERCLA “hazardous substances”, which would extend CERCLA order and cost recovery authorities.” It also states that EPA plans to take the “first step” to regulate PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act by the end of the year. It does not say when regulations will be put into place.