This EPA Move on 'Forever Chemicals' Is a Huge Step and Not Nearly Enough

·3 min read
Photo credit: MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images - Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency can be quite a useful thing if the administration in power remembers what it’s there for. For a while now, we here in the shebeen have been interested in the problem of polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), the so-called “forever chemicals.” Because the current administration understands that it has an EPA, and that it can put the EPA to good use, it has decided to make some effort with regard to dealing with these poisons in the ground, and in the water, that an astonishing percentage of Americans are carrying around inside them. From the Washington Post:

The Environmental Protection Agency said it will move with urgency to set enforceable drinking water limits on certain polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, more commonly known as “forever chemicals,” which do not break down naturally and have turned up in the water supplies of communities across the country. In 2016 the Obama administration put in place a recommended, but unenforceable, health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion for certain PFAS chemicals in drinking water — a level that scientists have said is insufficient to protect public health. Once mandatory standards come into effect — which will take years — local water utilities will face penalties if they fail to meet them…

The new actions could have profound implications for public health, given that the thousands of PFAS chemicals are used in many things from specialized firefighting foams on military bases and airports to consumer products such as nonstick cookware and water-repellent fabrics.

Some activists are wary of the administration’s proposal, seeing them as all wind and very little rain.

Another interest group, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), called the EPA’s new road map “woefully inadequate” to offset “an escalating PFAS contamination crisis.” The road map is essentially “future promises of planning to plan,” the group said. Developing toxicity standards for only seven PFAS chemicals, out of thousands, is a “whack-a-mole” approach to government oversight.

They do have something of a point. The EPA plans to study only a few of the PFAS substances, and the program to phase the chemicals out of use is a voluntary one, and we know how well those work. The problem, as is almost always the case, is that the communities most affected need action now, and are almost entirely bereft of political influence and access.

Monday’s actions addressed only some of the recommendations submitted by a national environmental justice group in 2019. Communities of predominantly Black, Latino and Native Americans are often where PFAS chemicals are manufactured and sometimes incinerated. In a letter then, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council urged the EPA to research the effects on drinking water and human health and “prioritize cleanup sites with the highest and long term levels” of the chemicals so that affected communities could trust the safety of their soil and water.

“We believe much more needs to be done and that a quicker timeline should be pursued,” the group’s chairman, Richard Moore, wrote to the then-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

Still, this proposal from a newly invigorated EPA is a welcome first step in acknowledging a) there is a national public-health crisis arising from PFAS chemicals, and b) that we probably should do something about that. You take whatever wins you can get.

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