By CHHS Extern Suhani Chitalia
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that include PFOA, PFOS, and GenX. PFAS are commonly found in packaging used for food, commercial household products, industrial work environments, drinking water and living organisms. PFAS presents a threat to public health because most people come into contact with PFAS and the chemicals can accumulate and stay in the human body for a long period. Harvard University researchers have reported that public drinking water supplies serving more than 6 million Americans exceed the EPA suggested threshold for PFAS. Studies indicate that PFOA and PFOS can impact infant birth weights, the immune system, and can cause cancer and thyroid hormone disruption.
On February 14th, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a refined plan to address a set of “forever chemicals” that have long posed a threat to millions to Americans. The PFAS Action Plan establishes three overarching goals: (1) provide both short-term solutions and long-term strategies to address this important issue (2) provide a communication plan to address this emerging environmental challenge and (3) respond to the extensive community engagement inputs and public docket letters. However, many environmental groups and impacted communities have found that the “action plan” falls short in regulating these toxic chemicals. Impacted communities have stated the suggestive measures set forth by EPA are not sufficient and that binding maximum exposure limits should be established and enforced. This initial action by the EPA is merely a start to the process of regulating these harmful drinking water contaminants, and enforceable limits seem to be a distant reality.
Because the regulatory process is often slow and burdensome (experts estimate that setting a federal limit to PFAS exposure under the federal rulemaking process can take as long as ten years), States have been forced to take the lead in addressing PFAS exposure. Thus far, however, only New Jersey has formally adopted PFAS drinking water standards toxic chemicals. New Jersey has set the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) to 13 parts per trillion as recommended by the New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute. At least another seven states have policies or have indicated that they plan to pursue policies stricter than the EPA’s current health advisory of 70 parts per trillion.
The courts are also serving as an avenue for change and progress to address toxic chemicals. Thus far, courts have focused on Military Sites because they are commonly known to have PFAS contamination. The Department of Defense has identified approximately 400 current or former military sites with known or suspected contamination. This past October, affected communities in Pennsylvania won a major victory in a Third Circuit ruling addressing a lawsuit against the United States Navy. The judicial decision will ultimately allow individuals whose drinking water was contaminated with PFSA chemicals from neighboring Naval military bases to proceed with their lawsuits against the U.S. Navy. The Third Circuit recognized the damaging effects of toxic chemicals released from the military bases, and asks the Navy to pay for medical surveillance of exposed families so that serious health problems associated with exposure to chemicals can be detected early.
PFAS has been around for decades and their toxicity levels and impacts on human health are now being brought to light. It is important that government officials move forward with stringent regulations, and where they are not willing, that state governments step in to protect public health.