Opinion: Five steps for PFAS regulation

Keelan Baldwin

PFAS is spreading throughout your kitchen and water supplies, but the federal government is not taking sufficient steps to safeguard the public from further contamination.

PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Known as “the forever chemical,” PFAS are a group of human-made compounds that do not break down, remaining in the environment and inside the human body indefinitely. 

The chemical’s primary use is as a water repellent. The most commonly studied PFAS are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). They can be found in numerous American household items and substances. They are commonly found in non-stick pans and fire extinguishers. Drinking water becomes immediately contaminated after exposure to PFAS through commercial products.

In this June 17, 2019 photo in Washington, a label states that these pans do not contain PFAS.  For consumers, the health information that state and local governments and industry are releasing about a family of nonstick and stain-resistant compounds _ known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS _ can be a lot like the label messages on those pots and pans: a confusing mix of reassurances and alarm.  (AP Photo/Ellen Knickmeyer)

The likelihood of health problems from PFAS is dependent on several factors, including the concentration, frequency and duration of exposure. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the Environmental Protection Agency, studies have shown that human health effects may include fertility issues, increased cholesterol and increased risk of certain cancers. It is difficult to determine what type of health effect one may have after overexposure to PFAS since there is not enough research on the effects of each chemical within PFAS.

The use of non-binding health advisories as guidance instead of a binding Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) regulation with an established Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) creates challenges for state drinking water programs and public water systems. The health advisory standards do not indicate how to combat the levels of PFAS once they are found in the local water supply. Some states, such as Massachusetts and Maine, have created a PFAS Task Force to immediately sample and test public and private drinking water for PFAS contamination.

Equipment used to test for PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals) in drinking water at Trident Laboratories in Holland, pictured on Monday, June 18, 2018. Trident Labs added testing for perfluorinated chemicals, known as PFAS, in March after toxic contamination was identified at a former tannery near Rockford.

The government should regulate PFAS through five key steps. The process should begin with the establishment of MCL for PFAS. MCL is the maximum level allowed of a contaminant in water which is delivered to any user of a public water system. Currently, states differ in MCL; therefore, people in different states are exposed to varying levels of PFAS.

The second step entails regulating PFAS chemicals as a group rather than individually. There are multiple sub-chemicals within the group of PFAS. The main chemicals regulated are POFA, PFOS, PFNA, PFHxS, PFHpA, and PFBS. The EPA states that the concentration of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water, either individually or combined, should not be greater than 70 parts per trillion (ppt). There are no health advisories stated for PFNA, PFHxS, PFHpA, or PFBS. Each of the chemicals are hazardous to human health on their own and should be considered equal contaminants in each state.

Third, it is imperative to increase the amount and availability of federal funds for PFAS cleanup. Currently there are no federal funds designated to states for pre-discovered PFAS contaminated water supplies. This lack of funding forces states to fund cleanup procedures in their entirety, which many states simply cannot afford without federal assistance.

The fourth step should involve an expedited development of PFAS analytical methods and treatment technologies for areas beyond drinking water. PFAS has contaminated our household products, our workplaces, and even our food.

Lastly, the federal government needs to take aggressive and responsible steps toward addressing emerging contaminants through enhanced regulatory protections. Without these steps, there is limited funding for states to create treatment facilities, clean up PFAS or educate the public about the risks of PFAS intake.

Without federal efforts at mitigation, our food, our water and our homes will continue to risk contamination from “the forever chemical.” It’s time to act.

Keelan Baldwin is a water policy researcher at the Northeast Midwest Institute with a focus on environmental policy and law. 

In this June 7, 2018 photo, PFAS foam gathers at the the Van Etten Creek dam in Oscoda Township, Mich., near Wurtsmith Air Force Base.