Burr & Forman

06.1.2018   |   Environmental Law Matters, EPA, PFAS Substances

EPA To Assess Health Threat Posed By At Least Some PFAS Substances, But There Are Doubts About Objectivity

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has announced an effort to assess the potential health risks posed by a class of chemicals known as per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that have been found in significant concentrations in the Nation’s water supply.  (EPA News Release: Summit Addresses PFAS).  EPA already has health advisories for the presence of two particular chemicals in the PFAS family, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).  (Drinking Water Health Advisories).  Both PFOA and PFOS have generally been phased out or discontinued in commercial use, but they remain persistent in the environment.  Their presence in drinking water has spawned litigation around the country against water systems and nearby chemical plants and other suspected sources of the substances.  And this has raised general concerns with respect to other substances in the PFAS family.

Administrator Pruitt pledged that EPA would evaluate whether to set maximum concentration levels for these chemicals drinking water, and it would develop recommendations for cleaning chemicals from groundwater.  The Agency will also consider whether to designate any of the chemicals in the group as hazardous substances for environmental cleanup purposes and finally, to research the toxicity levels for some of the compounds.  EPA has an existing webpage for these substances which provides background information and discusses some of the health risks they may present.  (EPA Research-PFAS).

Pruitt’s announcement was supported by the American Chemical Council, but the Council noted that many of the concerns to date have been related only to PFOA and PFOS, and it urged the Agency to base any decision on sound science.  On the other hand, at least some members of Congress are not convinced that the assessment will be truly objective in assessing the issue.  (The Hill, May 25, 2018).  Fears about a lack of integrity in the proposed PFAS process were fueled by a recent revelation that the White House and EPA sought to prevent publication of a recent government study about the presence of PFOA and PFOS in some drinking water systems near military bases and chemical plants from New York to Michigan.  (Politico, May 14, 2018).  Environmental groups are also skeptical, noting that the announcement comes on the heels of a controversial proposed transparency rule to be applied in assessing scientific information that EPA announced last month (as discussed in our May blog post).  Controversy over that proposal prompted EPA to extend the original 30-day comment period for the rule.  That deadline, which was originally scheduled to end May 30, has now been extended to August 16.  EPA also scheduled a public hearing in Washington, D.C., on July 17.  (EPA Release).

While EPA’s efforts begin and proceed, States and local governments are left to grapple with the issues presented by this group of chemicals as litigation looms and public concerns are raised.  Groups such as the Interstate Technology Regulatory Council are attempting to fill the void, at least until EPA takes definitive action, if it does.  The ITRC has published a fact sheet assembling information about regulations, guidance, and advisories for PFAS substances that have been developed either by the federal or state and local governments.  (ITRC – PFAS_Fact_Sheet pdf).

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