The Environmental Protection Agency PFAS warns that ‘forever chemicals’ are more dangerous than previously thought

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The Environmental Protection Agency warned Wednesday that a range of man-made chemicals found in drinking water, cosmetics and food packaging used by millions of Americans pose a greater risk to human health than regulators previously thought.

New health guidelines for a ubiquitous class of compounds known as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl, or PFAS, emphasize the risks facing dozens of communities across the country. These “forever chemicals” are linked to infertility, thyroid problems, and many types of cancer, and can persist in the environment for years without breaking down.

“People on the front lines have suffered from PFAS contamination for far too long,” Michael Reagan, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in a statement. “That’s why the EPA is taking drastic action.”

The guidelines are intended to urge local officials to install water filters or at least notify residents of the contamination. But for now, the federal government does not regulate the chemicals. Health advocates have called on the Biden administration to move more quickly to address what officials on both sides have described as a statewide pollution crisis.

“Today’s announcement should set alarm bells ringing for consumers and regulators,” said Melanie Benish, legislative attorney at Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization. “These proposed advisory levels show that we must move faster to significantly reduce exposure to these toxic chemicals.”

Since the 1940s, chemical makers have used the heavy-duty compounds to make nonstick cookware, moisture-resistant fabrics, and flame-retardant equipment. But the same toughness against water and fire, which made the chemicals profitable, allowed them to build up in nature and build up in the body – with long-term health effects.

Agency officials have evaluated two of the most common ones, known as PFOA and PFOS, in recent human health studies and announced Wednesday that lifetime exposure at astonishingly low levels of 0.004 and 0.02 parts per trillion, respectively, can harm the immune and cardiovascular systems. It is associated with low birth weights.

These drinking water concentrations represent a “really sharp drop” from previous health guidelines set at 70 parts per trillion in 2016, said Eric Olson, chief strategic director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. He added that the announcement sends a “signal” Important to get these things out of our drinking water.”

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More importantly, the Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to propose mandatory standards for the two chemicals this fall. Once this is done, water utilities will face penalties if they neglect to meet them. The warnings will remain in place until the rule is issued. The Environmental Protection Agency also said Wednesday that it is providing $1 billion in grants to states and tribes through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act to tackle drinking water pollution.

Warning levels are too low to be detected with today’s technology. Some lawmakers, including the senator. This means the new directives are impractical, Shelley Moore Capito (Virginia), the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement.

“The EPA’s announcement will only increase confusion regarding compliance efforts with water regulations and further complicate risk communication to the public,” she said.

The American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s major trade group, said in a statement that it supports the development of enforceable standards for these long-lasting compounds. But it missed the EPA for issuing the warnings before outside experts on the agency’s scientific advisory board had finished reviewing the basic research, indicating that the process was “fundamentally flawed.”

“Instead of waiting for this peer review result, the EPA announced new guidelines that are 3,000 to 17,000 times smaller than those issued by the Obama administration in 2016,” she said.

Already in the United States, manufacturers have largely replaced PFOA and PFOS with other fluorinated compounds. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that two of those alternatives — called GenX and PFBS — are also dangerous when ingested even at relatively low levels, according to a review of recent research in mice.

Among the communities hardest hit by pollution are those near military bases, where PFAS-laden foams have been used for decades to fight jet fuel fires.

For example, many residents in Oskoda, Michigan, heed the warnings of state health officials by stopping drinking untreated well water and eating deer hunted near the now-closed Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

“There is still a plan to clean up,” said Anthony Spaniola, attorney and co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network whose family owns a lakeside home in Oskuda. “The Department of Defense, quite frankly, has mismanaged this site, bordering on the daredevil.”

Spaniola hopes the new health guidelines will mean the military will “change the scope of what they need to clean up.”

In North Carolina, Emily Donovan’s family of four began carrying bottled water and installing a filter under the sink after discovering PFAS in and around the Cape Fear River. Instead of asking parents to donate cookies and cake, schools ask for bottles of water for dances and other events.

“It’s a layer of stress we all live with right now,” said Donovan, now an activist who co-founded Clean Cape Fear and is a member of the National Pollution Control Alliance’s PFAS leadership team.

She added, “You constantly wonder, is there something inside of me? Is there something inside of my children?”

Reagan, who served as North Carolina’s top environmental official before joining the Environmental Protection Agency, ordered chemical company Chemours to stop vehicles from flowing into the river.

While the agency plans to regulate two PFAS, thousands of distinct compounds have been discovered. Many health advocates say federal regulators need to crack down on vehicles as a group.

“We can’t continue this mole-beating approach to regulating them,” Olson said. “We will never end anyone’s life.”

Radhika Fox, who heads the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water, said the agency is considering more comprehensive regulations for the pool category. “We are exploring options to suggest a group-specific rule, not just PFOA and PFOS,” she told reporters Tuesday on a Zoom call.

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