02/14/2019 09:09 EST | Updated 02/14/2019 15:10 EST

EPA Vows To Regulate Cancer-Causing 'Forever Chemicals' Polluting Drinking Water

It's better than nothing, but former EPA officials warn the agency is putting "the health of millions of Americans at risk."

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EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency unveiled a plan to start considering regulations on cancer-causing perfluorinated substances, or PFAS.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced it will consider restricting toxic, cancer-causing “forever chemicals” contaminating drinking water across the country ― a move critics say amounts to a delay that could sicken millions.  

The agency released what Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler called “the most comprehensive cross-agency plan to address an emerging chemical of concern ever undertaken by EPA.” The regulator said it would set a limit for the chemical under the Safe Drinking Water Act by the end of the year.

“We are taking concerted steps to protect our nation’s drinking water,” Wheeler said at a news conference in Philadelphia. He called the announcement a “historic moment for the agency and the American public.”

Wheeler said the EPA had “already begun the regulatory development process for listing PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances,” making it easier to marshal funds to clean up contaminations. He said the plan would include new research methods to monitor pollution. 

Reports last month said Wheeler, widely condemned for his links to big industry, would not regulate the chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds ― sometimes called perfluorinated substances, or PFAS ― at all. But critics say the EPA has gathered more than enough data over the past decade to propose an immediate drinking water standard, called a maximum contaminant limit. 

“EPA needs to release strict drinking water standards and not just do a plan or do more research,” said Judith Enck, a former regional EPA administrator who began dealing with a PFAS crisis in upstate New York in 2014. “There is enough data to take action. There is not enough urgency by Acting Administrator Wheeler and he is putting the health of millions of Americans at risk.” 

The announcement came as the EPA published its proposal to gut the Waters of the U.S. rule, which extended protections to streams and wetlands that feed the drinking water of 117 million Americans. 

PFAS represent a family of chemicals that stick to water molecules and remain in the environment for decades. The chemicals are linked to rare forms of cancer, reproductive problems and thyroid disease.

Associated Press
New York state Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, a Republican, shows photos of children from Hoosick Falls, N.Y., whose blood has high levels of toxic PFOA.

Though no longer being manufactured, PFAS remain in many everyday products, including nonstick Teflon, firefighting foam and fast-food wrappers. 

Wheeler, whose nomination to be the nation’s 15th EPA administrator awaits a Senate confirmation vote, took heat for refusing to commit to regulating PFAS at a hearing last month. Politico reported in January that the EPA did not plan to limit the chemicals. 

Wheeler repeatedly stressed at Thursday’s news conference that the EPA has continued efforts to clean up contaminated drinking water and enforce current water health advisories for the toxic chemicals as it worked on the action plan.

Asked if it was possible the EPA may eventually fail to set a maximum containment limit, or MCL, Wheeler said the agency “can’t predetermine what the outcome will be,” but “has every intention of setting an MCL.”

The health and environmental effects of PFAS remained virtually ignored by regulators for decades. In the late 1990s, a crusading attorney sued E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. over a massive contamination in Parkersburg, West Virginia, that killed livestock and sickened and deformed many residents in the rural Appalachian community that surrounded the chemical company’s plant. After a years-long legal battle, DuPont divested its Chemours division and the companies reached a $670 million agreement to settle 3,550 personal injury lawsuits in February 2017. Minnesota-based chemical giant 3M is now facing mounting lawsuits of its own. 

There is not enough urgency by Acting Administrator Wheeler and he is putting the health of millions of Americans at risk.Judith Enck, former administrator for EPA Region 2

Yet the chemicals remain unregulated at the federal level. In January 2009, the EPA issued its first advisory in response to contamination in Alabama, stating that perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, one of the chemicals in the family, posed a health risk only in concentrations higher than 400 parts per trillion. For perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, a sister chemical commonly used in fire retardants, the EPA pegged the limit at 200 parts per trillion. 

In 2016, the EPA issued a new health advisory lowering the risk threshold to 70 parts per trillion for both PFOA and PFOS. That set off a chain reaction, exposing local contaminations across the country, including severalin New York State. 

Last May, the EPA hosted a national leadership summit on PFAS, but the agency’s decision to bar reporters from attending sessions and one official’s manhandling of an Associated Press reporter overshadowed the event. Later that month, the White House and EPA moved to suppress an Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry report that found PFAS pose health risks at 70 parts per trillion. A safer limit would be closer to 11 parts per trillion, the agency determined. 

In the meantime, some states began regulating the chemicals. In 2016, Vermont set a 20-parts-per-trillion health advisory for PFOA and PFOS, and expanded the advisory to include three other PFAS chemicals last summer. 

In May 2017, Minnesota lowered its advisory levels to roughly half that of the EPA’s ― setting a limit of 35 parts per trillion for PFOA and 27 parts per trillion for PFOS. 

In November 2017, New Jersey set a maximum contaminant level of 14 parts per trillion for PFOA and 13 parts per trillion for perfluorononanoic acid, a related compound known as PFNA, and moved to do the same for PFOS last year.