August 30, 2022
August 30, 2022

EPA Takes Major Steps to Protect the Public from Toxic PFOS and PFOA in U.S. Drinking Water

By Dan Harrison, Attorney
By Dan Harrison, Attorney

On October 18, 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its PFAS Strategic Roadmap announcing plans to address the urgent public health and environmental crises stemming from the widespread use of per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) across the United States.

PFAS are a group of dangerous man-made chemicals that have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries since the 1940s. Many types of PFAS remain commonly found in food packaging; commercial household products, including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products, polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams; production facilities that use PFAS; drinking water where PFAS were discharged or migrated; and in fish, animals, and humans, where PFAS build up and persist over time.

Exposure to at least two types of PFAS – perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) – have been linked to severe health problems, including increased risks of cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, liver damage, kidney disease, immune suppression, ulcerative colitis, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. While litigation for exposure-related claims commenced nationwide and pro-active states like New Jersey and Michigan enacted strict drinking water standards for PFOS and PFOA, the federal government largely turned a blind eye to both PFAS regulation and the countless experts who criticized the EPA’s unenforceable health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOS and PFOA.

With the newly issued PFAS Strategic Roadmap, however, the EPA vows to right the wrongs of the past to better understand PFAS toxicity and the scope of their use, limit PFAS discharges into the environment, address existing contamination, and develop new monitoring and detection methods, among many of other actions. To support these initiatives, EPA plans to designate PFOS and PFOA as “hazardous substances” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act by summer 2023, allowing the EPA to, at last, fully investigate and remediate sites with PFOA and PFOS contamination.  Importantly, the EPA also announced plans to propose a national primary drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS by the fall of 2022, to finalize enforceable limits by 2023.

On November 16, 2021, the EPA took one major step towards meeting the aforementioned goals by submitting draft scientific documents regarding the health effects of PFOA and PFOS to the agency’s Science Advisory Board. The EPA’s data noted that “negative health effects may occur at much lower levels of exposure to PFOA and PFOS than previously understood and that PFOA is a likely carcinogen.”

This data will inform health advisories and the development of Maximum Contaminant Level Goals and a National Primary Drinking Water Regulation for PFOA and PFOS as planned.

Although long overdue and well behind some proactive states who have already implemented PFAS regulations, the EPA’s newly aggressive approach towards this ongoing crisis acts as a welcome relief for Americans currently suffering from PFAS-related exposure or property contamination.  These steps will undoubtedly trigger liability for dischargers in the future and, after decades of regulatory inaction, lead to improved human health and achieving environmental justice throughout the U.S.

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