WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s administration looks poised to crack down on a group of “forever chemicals” that have been linked to a range of health problems, a move that could put companies like 3M and DuPont on the hook for billions of dollars in cleanup costs.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — consisting of thousands of synthetic chemicals used since the 1940s in food packaging, household cleaners, cookware and other everyday products — have been linked to cancer, low birth weights, immunological effects, thyroid hormone disruption and increased cholesterol levels.
More than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their drinking water, according to estimates from the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy and research organization. A recent Harvard University study found that exposure to these chemicals can increase the severity of COVID-19 in people who have contracted it.
Especially vulnerable are children whose developmental process might be affected, as well as communities of color, where residents often live near PFAS-contaminated facilities, according to environmentalists.
“There’s a definite disproportionate and disparate impact of PFAS exposure in some communities,” said Eve Gartner, managing attorney for the toxic exposure and health program at Earthjustice, a nonprofit that litigates environmental issues.
Biden has pledged to designate PFAS as hazardous substances, enforce a limit for them in drinking water, incentivize companies to use alternatives and accelerate research into their toxicity.
Though former President Donald Trump’s administration made similar promises in February 2019 under a “PFAS Action Plan,” it wasn’t until the last hours of his presidency that the Environmental Protection Agency initiated a legal process that eventually could regulate PFAS in drinking water nationally. The action came after the EPA weakened public health guidance on PFAS, making it more difficult for the Biden administration to impose regulations. A year ago, the Trump administration also opposed a House bill that would designate PFAS as hazardous substances.
3M said it would work with the Biden administration to improve water quality for all Americans based on scientific processes and collaboration with stakeholders. But the company, which would be required along with others producing, transporting or using PFAS to pay billions for cleanup under Biden’s proposed regulations, disagrees with the new administration about the toxicity of PFAS chemicals.
“While the science of PFAS continues to evolve, the weight of scientific evidence does not show PFOA or PFOS cause harm in people at current or past levels found in the environment,” a 3M spokesman said in an interview. PFOA and PFOS are types of PFAS.
“We are prepared to provide our expertise and scientific insights to help the administration achieve positive outcomes for Americans, including through the remediation of PFAS where appropriate. Onerous regulation, political debates and biased, agenda-driven studies will only slow progress,” he also said.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents companies that produce different forms of PFAS, agrees. The ACC, cautioning against labeling all PFAS chemicals as toxic, said they are vital for Americans’ everyday lives because of their use in everything from communication devices and aircraft to alternative energy and medical devices, COVID-19 tests and medical garments. “Each individual chemistry has its own unique properties and uses, as well as environmental and health profiles,” the ACC said.
DuPont, which recently with other companies settled a $4 billion PFAS lawsuit, said it supports the EPA using its authority to set science-based standards like the 2019 PFAS Action Plan, which would evaluate whether PFAS should be more broadly regulated. That plan could designate PFAS as hazardous substances, develop clean-up recommendations and monitor drinking water for PFAS.
“We believe science-based, federal standards will provide clear, uniform guidance for all,” a DuPont spokesman said.
Environmentalists view the Biden administration’s proposed regulations as a positive step forward that should have started under the Trump administration.
But Earthjustice’s Gartner expects the process for imposing regulations will take years unless the EPA uses its authority to regulate PFAS on an expedited basis. The 2019 PFAS Action Plan, for instance, was the result of a regulatory process started in 2011.
“The time is long overdue for EPA to start taking important forward steps to address this,” said Erik Olson, senior strategic director of health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group.
Olson supports Biden’s pick for head of the EPA, Michael Regan, because Regan has extensive experience managing the PFAS regulatory process from his time as head of the Department of Environmental Quality in North Carolina, a state that’s heavily impacted by PFAS contamination.
Regan was a key player in holding the polluters accountable and trying to ensure that communities were getting clean drinking water, Gartner said.
Aside from cleaning up PFAS contamination sites, Olson and Gartner said it’s imperative to investigate the sources of the substances and set limits to prevent discharge before it happens, cutting down on clean-up costs.
“We really need to tackle this whole class of chemicals together, because otherwise we’ll be on a toxic treadmill, continually trying to address one chemical after another,” Olson said, proposing that the EPA create a test for the full array of PFAS chemicals.