NCEL Blog

States Are Taking Action on PFAS

March 8, 2019

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Mara Herman
Environmental Health Manager

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Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS, are a class of toxic chemicals which have historically been used in water-repellent fabrics, nonstick cookware, and firefighting foams. Their usefulness led to widespread prevalence, especially on US military bases where they were frequently used to stop fires. PFAS encompass a range of eight chemical compounds. PFAS, nicknamed “forever chemicals,” do not break down in the natural environment and find their way into our soil and drinking water. The EPA is still regulating PFAS off of data gathered in 2016, when they set a non-binding health advisory at 70 parts per trillion for combined types of PFAS. Many experts agree the limit should be at least seven to 10 times lower. This has left it up to states and local water systems to take any further steps to restrict PFAS.

PFAS Health Impacts

Although two long-chain PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, were phased out by producers over a decade ago, their prevalence in the natural environment will remain for years to come. PFAS levels in sixty-six water supplies across dozens of states were found with samples exceeding the EPA’s recommended safety limits for two types of the chemical, these water supplies could have exposed any of the six million people they serve to PFAS. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to an increased risk of cancer, suppressed immune systems and problems in fetal development. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found traces of PFAS in 98%of its participants.

To see regions with PFAS contamination, check out this interactive map.
To see regions with PFAS contamination, check out this interactive map.

EPA Efforts

On February 14, the EPA published their new PFAS Action Plan. The plan states that the EPA is developing regulations and assistance against PFAS. However, there are no MCLs (Maximum Contaminant Level), or any true regulation for PFAS chemicals in the plan. The agency is maintaining their 2016 suggested threshold: 70 parts per trillion, which – according to experts – is still unsafe. Additionally, the EPA’s plan focuses on two, long-chain PFAS chemicals, ignoring up to six other versions with their own health impacts. Many critics label this report as a method of delaying action.  

State Efforts

Faced with a growing health crisis and lack of federal response, states have taken it upon themselves to enforce stricter PFAS regulation. Last year, Washington became the first state to ban PFAS chemicals in food packaging and firefighting foam. Actions such as setting stricter contamination levels in drinking water and encompassing more types of PFAS beyond the two (PFOA and PFOS) in regulation have enabled states to keep their residents healthier and safer. Additionally, states and local groups can engage in legal action to hold polluters and the federal government accountable. The State of Minnesota recently settled for $850 million after suing the company 3M over these toxins.