EPA eyes health advisory revamp for key ‘forever chemicals’

By E.A. Crunden, Ariel Wittenberg | 11/16/2021 04:23 PM EST

A glass of water is filled at a kitchen tap. EPA is reassessing the health effects of two per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFOA and PFOS. Cate Gillon/Getty Images

EPA has asked agency advisers to reassess the health effects of the two most notorious "forever chemicals,” a move that could translate into stronger regulations.

The agency has tasked its Science Advisory Board with reviewing draft scientific documents pertaining to two per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFOA and PFOS, both of which are linked to widespread drinking water contamination. That peer-review process will allow the agency to quickly update its drinking water health advisories as EPA moves to regulate the two chemicals.

Administrator Michael Regan touted the announcement as another significant step by an agency that has repeatedly cited PFAS as a "top priority." He pointed to EPA’s recently released PFAS road map, noting that blueprint laid out a number of "science-based actions" intended to protect vulnerable communities from legacy PFOA and PFOS contamination.

"This action will ensure a rigorous review from experienced scientists to strengthen our understanding of this preliminary information as the agency works toward developing revised health advisories for PFOA and PFOS, and soon establishing regulations that protect communities from these contaminants," Regan said in a statement.

Both chemicals have been phased out of U.S. production but they were once widely used in manufacturing. Like other PFAS more broadly, they were prized for their grease- and moisture-resistant attributes, which are useful in everything from microwave popcorn bags to firefighting foam. But they do not break down in the environment and pose significant health risks. Currently, EPA has an advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, though experts have long argued that number is far too high, and multiple states have set their own, much lower limits. Minnesota, for example, has limited PFOA to 15 ppt in drinking water.

The EPA advisory level at present is not a regulation but a signal for drinking water utilities to know what levels of PFOA and PFOS would be considered elevated. EPA has promised to write regulations for the contaminants in drinking water by fall 2022, but that legal limit could ultimately be higher than a revised drinking water advisory or maximum contaminant goal. The Safe Drinking Water Act allows EPA to consider factors other than public health, like feasibility and cost of treatment, in writing drinking water regulations.

Both PFAS set for reassessment have long established health risks. PFOA in particular is infamously associated with contamination in Parkersburg, W.Va., a saga later portrayed in the Hollywood thriller "Dark Waters." Arguably the most significant PFAS study conducted to date tested community members exposed to PFOA and found the chemical was linked to cancer and a number of other health outcomes, including thyroid disease and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

PFOS has not gotten cinematic treatment, but the chemical is a repeated source of concern in drinking water and in food items like fish (Greenwire, Aug. 31).

A revision of the health advisory limits for the chemicals has been expected for several weeks. Late last month, EPA said it had found the chemical GenX — another member of the PFAS family — to be highly toxic to humans, at levels exceeding current understandings of PFOA and PFOS (Greenwire, Oct. 25). But as part of its announcement, the agency emphasized that it would be taking another look at the two most studied chemicals. Experts and advocates have largely agreed the reassessment will lead to a lowering of the present advisories.

In its announcement, EPA said it had sent four draft documents to the advisory board "with recent scientific data and new analyses that indicate that negative health effects may occur at much lower levels of exposure to PFOA and PFOS than previously understood." The agency said the documents also indicate that PFOA is a likely carcinogen.

Other efforts

PFAS continue to be a major concern at every level of government. States have moved much faster than federal regulators in cracking down on the chemicals, curtailing their use in items like food packaging in addition to imposing far lower limits in drinking water.

Many have also sought to escalate pressure on Congress, where the chemicals remain a constant source of turmoil. In a letter sent yesterday, attorneys general from 18 states and the District of Columbia asked the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to pass bills that would see a number of restrictions imposed on PFAS.

Led by New York Attorney General Letitia James (D), the coalition asked EPW members to prioritize passing the "PFAS Action Act" (H.R. 2467), which has twice cleared the House, only to stall when facing Senate approval. That sweeping bill would prompt EPA to undertake a number of steps regarding PFAS, including designating PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under Superfund law, something the agency is already working toward.

Money to help those struggling with PFAS contamination is also on the way after President Biden signed the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill into law yesterday. That legislation includes 10 billion to aid communities in locating and cleaning up the chemicals, along with other contaminants.