This past Valentine’s Day, the EPA showed a little love to the nation’s water systems by proposing a new plan to regulate the presence of PFAS, a harmful set of chemicals sometimes found in U.S. drinking water. What are PFAS, how did they get into our water, what’s the plan to clean them up and what are the criticisms of that proposed plan? Answers to all these questions and more can be found below.
What are PFAs?
What did you write on your Valentine’s cards two weeks ago? Ours said, “We’ll love you until PFAS naturally biodegrade” because the chemicals—commonly found in household items from nonstick pans to dental floss—don’t break down in nature. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, are man-made chemicals which were manufactured at a high rate starting in the 1940s. Now found commonly in the environment, the chemicals are often concentrated in areas that once had PFAS-producing facilities, most of which were located in the Midwest and Rust Belt.
While the two most common PFAS (PFOA and PFOS) have been phased out of production in the United States, their presence is still found in soil, food products (often grown or shipped in contaminated soil or packaging), workplaces, drinking water and living organisms throughout the country. The chemicals are still produced at plants internationally and are imported to the U.S. in a number of consumer goods including—but not limited to—carpet, clothing, leather, packaging, rubber and plastic materials.
What risks are associated with PFAS?
The first issue surrounding PFAS is that they’re man-made, non-biodegradable chemicals. That means every chemical particle ever created in a factory is still out in the environment. Unfortunately, cleaning up PFAS infiltrating our soil, animals, places and people around the country has not been a priority until quite recently, so it’s difficult to form a comprehensive plan for their removal.
Additionally, PFAS can accumulate inside the body once absorbed and stay there for a long time. This prolonged exposure can lead to dangerous levels of PFAS in the body and cause adverse health effects. Studies have noted a number of alarming health risks associated with the ingestion of PFAS. The EPA warns that the absorption of PFAS caused reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney and immunological effects as well as tumor growth in animal studies. Human studies have noted the effects of the chemicals in relation to infant birth weight, immune system issues, cancer and thyroid hormone disruption.
What’s the plan of attack?
By the end of 2019, the EPA will be prepared to introduce a new Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for PFOA and PFOS as they’re the most common versions of the chemical. The agency is asking for the input of the public and collecting and evaluating information to come to a new regulatory determination.
An outline of the plan also seeks to strengthen the enforcement of cleanup strategies (especially for groundwater contamination), monitor drinking water, expand research into understanding and managing risks and communicate those risks more effectively to the public. Officials are also considering adding PFAS to the Toxics Release Inventory and prohibiting the use of certain PFAS.
What are the criticisms?
While the plan does put forth a few ideas to rid the country of PFAS, critics say it doesn’t give enough concrete steps to move forward. Senator Tom Carper (D–Del.) stated, “It has taken the EPA nearly a year just to kick the can even further down the road.” And he isn’t the only one worried that the EPA isn’t doing enough to mitigate the health risks posed by PFAS.
Environmental groups criticized the EPA for choosing to limit only the two most common PFAS, both of which have already ceased production in the U.S. “The bigger problem here is that companies that make these chemicals just change them a little bit, so the new version of PFOA and PFOS generally are still being produced, still being used and still being released” said Geoff Gisler, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Many communities that have been affected by high levels of PFAS in drinking water want quick, decisive action regarding the elimination and cleanup of these dangerous chemicals in their communities and feel that the EPA’s attempt at a “first step” was more about distraction than action.
Brian McManus—spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality—assured the public that no evidence of PFAS have been found in state water testing as of July 2018. However, we understand that the safety of your family is your first priority. If you’re worried about the quality, cleanliness or safety of the water in your home, consider a water softener or reverse osmosis system. Call our offices today to talk about commercial or residential water softener installation options!