Chemicals

Can PFAS be Eliminated? EPA’s Efforts to Date

The EPA on October 18 revealed its PFAS Strategic Roadmap: EPA’s Commitments to Action 2021-2024 as part of a multiagency frontal assault to address pollution from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

PFAS are popular for their fire-resistant abilities and the properties that allow them to repel water, oil, stains, and grease.

PFAS are also known as “forever” chemicals because of the glacially slow pace at which they dissipate in the environment. Traces of these chemicals have been found in the blood of virtually everyone tested over the last 20 years by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They have also been linked to a host of health issues, including cancer, immune system deficiencies, negative developmental effects in infants and children, lower fertility rates, and increased cholesterol.

The Agency’s road map includes:

  • Aggressive timelines to set enforceable drinking water limits under the Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure water is safe to drink in every community;
  • A hazardous substance designation under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) to strengthen the ability to hold polluters financially accountable;
  • Timelines for action—whether they be data collection or rulemaking—on Effluent Guideline Limitations under the Clean Water Act (CWA) for nine industrial categories;
  • A review of past actions on PFAS taken under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to address those that are insufficiently protective;
  • Increased monitoring, data collection, and research so the Agency can identify what actions are needed and when to take them;
  • A final toxicity assessment for GenX, which can be used to develop health advisories that will help communities make informed decisions to better protect human health and ecological wellness; and
  • Continued efforts to build the technical foundation needed on PFAS air emissions to inform future actions under the Clean Air Act (CAA).

Three strategies guided development of the road map:

  1. Increase investments in research.
  2. Leverage authorities to take action now to restrict PFAS chemicals from being released into the environment.
  3. Accelerate the cleanup of PFAS contamination.

“For far too long, families across America – especially those in underserved communities – have suffered from PFAS in their water, their air, or in the land their children play on,” says EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “This comprehensive, national PFAS strategy will deliver protections to people who are hurting, by advancing bold and concrete actions that address the full lifecycle of these chemicals. Let there be no doubt that EPA is listening, we have your back, and we are laser focused on protecting people from pollution and holding polluters accountable.”

The road map is designed to account for the full life span of PFAS, according to the Agency.

“PFAS … continue to be released into the environment throughout the lifecycle of manufacturing, processing, distribution in commerce, use, and disposal,” the road map says. “Each action in this cycle creates environmental contamination and human and ecological exposure. … Many PFAS are also used in industrial processes and applications, such as in the manufacturing of other chemicals and products. PFAS can be released into the environment during manufacturing and processing as well as during industrial and commercial use. Products known to contain PFAS are regularly disposed of in landfills and by incineration (such as pizza boxes), which can also lead to the release of PFAS. Many PFAS have unique properties that prevent their complete breakdown in the environment, which means that even removing PFAS from contaminated areas can create PFAS-contaminated waste. This is currently unregulated in most cases.”

PFAS as hazardous waste

On October 26, 2021, in response to a petition received from New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, the EPA announced plans to initiate two new rulemaking actions to tackle PFAS contamination as hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

“First, the agency will initiate the process to propose adding four PFAS chemicals as RCRA Hazardous Constituents under Appendix VIII, by evaluating the existing data for these chemicals and establishing a record to support such a proposed rule,” states the EPA news release. “The four PFAS chemicals EPA will evaluate are: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS), and GenX. Adding these chemicals as RCRA Hazardous Constituents would ensure they are subject to corrective action requirements and would be a necessary building block for future work to regulate PFAS as a listed hazardous waste.”

If enacted, this regulation will impact landfills, wastewater plants, and water treatment facilities.

“The second rulemaking effort will clarify in our regulations that the RCRA Corrective Action Program has the authority to require investigation and cleanup for wastes that meet the statutory definition of hazardous waste, as defined under RCRA section 1004(5),” states the EPA. “This modification would clarify that emerging contaminants such as PFAS can be cleaned up through the RCRA corrective action process.”

“We can only make progress for communities suffering from PFAS pollution if we work collaboratively across levels of government and harness our collective resources and authority,” adds Regan. “Today, we are taking important steps toward developing new scientific approaches to confront these dangerous chemicals and strengthening the ability to clean up PFAS contamination. I thank Governor Lujan Grisham for her engagement and leadership, which will lead to better protections for people in New Mexico and across the country.”

“I applaud Administrator Regan for empowering states to follow New Mexico’s lead and hold PFAS polluters accountable,” says Grisham. “By taking an urgent and science-based approach to this issue, we’re helping to protect communities in New Mexico and around the country.”

A closer look at agency actions

Final human health toxicity assessment for GenX chemicals

In October 2021, the EPA finalized its human health toxicity assessment for hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO) dimer acid and its ammonium salt, which are also known as “GenX chemicals” because they are the two main chemicals used in GenX processing aid technology. This technology is utilized to make high-performance fluoropolymers without the use of PFOA.

“Toxicity assessments, along with exposure information and other important considerations to assess potential health risks, allow policy makers to determine if, and when, it is appropriate to take action to reduce exposure to a chemical,” states the EPA GenX toxicity assessment. “For example, in the future, EPA can gather information to characterize human exposure to GenX chemicals via drinking water, which will enable the agency to develop a drinking water health advisory.”

National PFAS testing strategy

The Agency announced the development of a national PFAS testing strategy in October 2021 that will use TSCA authorities to require PFAS manufacturers to provide information on PFAS.

“The PFAS to be tested will be selected based on an approach that breaks the large number of PFAS into smaller categories based on similar features and considers what existing data are available for each category,” according to the EPA’s PFAS Testing Strategy website. “EPA’s initial set of test orders for PFAS will be strategically selected from more than 20 different categories of PFAS.”

There is little toxicity data available for the hundreds of PFAS present in commerce. Researching them one at a time would be an endless and impossible task.

“This Strategy will help EPA identify and select PFAS for which the Agency will require testing using TSCA authorities,” continues the EPA. “The Strategy develops categories of PFAS based on information about similarities in structure, physical-chemical properties, and existing test data on the toxicity of PFAS (both publicly available and submitted to EPA under TSCA).”

PFBA and PFBS

In August 2021, the EPA released a draft assessment of the human health hazards of perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA) for public comment and external peer review.  The comment period closed November 8, 2021.

“PFBA is a breakdown product of other PFAS that are used in stain-resistant fabrics, paper food packaging, and carpets; it is also used for manufacturing photographic film, and it is used as a substitute for longer chain perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids (PFCAs) in consumer products,” according to the EPA. “PFBA has been found to accumulate in agricultural crops and has been detected in household dust, soils, food products, and surface, ground, and drinking water.”

The EPA published an updated toxicity assessment for perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS) in April 2021. In addition to the human health risk information, the assessment also includes “chronic and subchronic oral reference doses (RfDs) for PFBS. A reference dose is an estimate of the amount of a chemical a person can ingest daily over a lifetime (chronic RfD) or less (subchronic RfD) that is unlikely to lead to adverse health effects.”

PFAS preliminary Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data

The first set of preliminary data for PFAS collected under TRI was released by the Agency in July 2021. The information released included data on more than 170 PFAS. The EPA also announced it was removing certain TRI exemptions and exclusions to enhance the quantity and quality of TRI reporting.

Increased PFAS data collection efforts

The EPA proposed a rule in June 2021 to require all manufacturers and importers “of PFAS in any year since 2011 to give EPA a wide range of data, including on how they are using certain PFAS,” according to the Agency.

EPA Council on PFAS

In April 2021, Regan called for the creation of an EPA Council on PFAS charged with helping the Agency better understand and reduce the associated risks of exposure to these chemicals.

Updated review process for new PFAS

New PFAS were previously allowed to enter the market through low-volume exemptions (LVEs). On April 27, 2021, the EPA announced policy shifts that “provide for the denial of LVE requests when EPA finds the chemical in question may cause serious human health effects or significant environmental effects, or when issues concerning toxicity or exposure require review that can’t be completed in 30 days.”

Drinking water standards and monitoring

In February 2021, the EPA established a national primary drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS and began “developing the final Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 5) to provide new data on 29 PFAS that are critically needed to improve EPA’s understanding of PFAS impacts on community drinking water.”