Stronger science needed in EPA’s latest actions on PFAS
The Environmental Protection Agency has officially proposed designating PFOA and PFOS, two of the oldest and most widely researched PFAS compounds, as “hazardous substances.” While significant, the announcement is not too surprising.
The issue of PFAS has been named a high priority under the Biden administration. The EPA has already started to develop national primary drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS, and previously pledged to designate both as hazardous materials under the Superfund law.
Also this year, the EPA lowered its safe-consumption levels for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water from 70 parts per trillion to numbers far lower: 0.004 ppt for PFOA and 0.02 ppt for PFOS.
This move left many in the science community wondering how states and municipalities would be able to detect and measure such small levels, given the limitations of the methods currently available. For perspective, one ppt is akin to a drop in an Olympic swimming pool.
In addition to pointing out that these rules are difficult to measure and impossible to enforce, we at the Center are also interested in highlighting technical advancements that will make PFAS cleanup simpler, cheaper, and more effective.
According to a study recently published in the journal Science, some types of PFAS can be broken down using two relatively harmless chemicals: sodium hydroxide or lye (which is used to make soap) and dimethyl sulfoxide, a chemical approved as a medication for bladder pain.
According to the researchers at UCLA and Northwestern who authored the study, this method is done at far lower temperatures than current methods used to destroy PFAS, and leaves no harmful byproducts behind. This has tremendous potential for treating water at scale.
In North Carolina, a company called 374Water has developed and intends to sell a water filter that can convert toxic sludge into clean water, including PFAS removal. A smaller version has been operating at Duke University since 2015 where it treats many different types of wastes, including firefighting foam containing PFAS.
PFAS compounds have provided us with innovations that have since become essential to daily life in modern society, among them food packaging, automobile anti-lock braking systems, 5G data networks, implanted medical devices, and firefighting foam. Banning their use across the board would have radical implications on the way we live our lives, and it is worth noting that the making of PFOA and PFOS were voluntarily discontinued in the U.S. nearly 20 years ago.
The Center believes that more research is needed to determine the human health effects of different PFAS compounds at different levels of exposure before regulatory action is taken. There is still a lot we don’t know. The EPA itself said it would invest in research “to fill gaps in understanding of PFAS, to identify which additional PFAS may pose human health and ecological risks at which exposure levels, and to develop methods to test, measure, remove, and destroy them.”
We look forward to watching the EPA develop a research agenda, and we encourage the agency to prioritize further research before rule making. Those tasked with protecting public health need good information in order to make good decisions. As the EPA continues to gather knowledge on PFAS, we hope it will consider the findings of an independent critical review of PFAS studies funded by the Center and published this year in Environmental Research.
Designating PFOA and PFOS as ‘hazardous substances’ is not a done deal. The EPA will publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register in the next several weeks with a 60-day public comment period.
Advocates hope finalizing the rule will increase reporting standards for companies and give the EPA more authority to require cleanup efforts. It may also reopen some previously closed sites for investigation and possible remedial action. Class-action trial attorneys stand at the ready.
Meanwhile, researchers in the laboratory continue to search for ways to break down the rest of the PFAS family of compounds to make life safer and more sustainable for us all.