The US Environmental Protection Agency is developing a national action plan to address contamination and pollution from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), synthetic chemical substances that have persisted in the environment since their introduction in the 1940s and have been linked to human health problems. The EPA’s actions follow in the footsteps of Canada, which is undertaking its own effort to deal with these contaminants.
Canada and the United States started drafting a binational strategy to deal with PFOS and PFOA two years ago, but the US portion was put on hold until a national action plan had been completed. With the US action plan finalized, the binational strategy draft is now expected to be completed in coming months, sent to the two governments for approval and released for public comment before being finalized. The IJC is also tasked under the agreement to monitor how the two nations are doing in meeting their goals.
Under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, Canada and the United States agreed to develop a list of Chemicals of Mutual Concern and create plans to deal with them. Specific PFAS substances, known as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), were among the first items both nations added to that list in 2016.
PFAS are a diverse group of compounds that are resistant to water, heat and oil, according to EPA. They are also persistent, meaning they don’t readily degrade in the environment, and they bioaccumulate, which means their concentrations increase over time in the blood and organs of living creatures. The chemicals have been used for decades in consumer products and industrial applications.
While PFAS have been found at low levels in the environment and within the general US population, studies suggest that certain types of PFAS compounds have an adverse effect on human health in high concentrations, including impacts on fetuses during pregnancy and for breastfed infants, increased risks of cancer, liver and thyroid problems and immune system disorders.
PFAS has already been detected in drinking water supplies within the Great Lakes basin (notably in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), spurring state efforts to deal with this health risk. Research done in the 1990s and early 2000s laid out how prevalent these substances were globally.
The EPA’s action plan has several components covering cleanup, enforcement, research and monitoring in the near- and long-term. Some of these are already underway, such as determining if new PFAS chemicals coming into commercial use are safe, and whether existing chemicals used in a new way are safe (under the 2016 US Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act). The agency is, on the whole, aiming for a broader reckoning of the toxicity of existing PFAS chemicals so as to prioritize regulation for them.
The EPA has suggested drinking water advisories for PFOS and PFOA levels. Under the action plan, the agency is developing maximum safe contaminant levels for drinking water for those substances, and will propose adding PFAS chemicals to the next five-year national drinking water monitoring cycle to get a better idea of the frequency and concentration of PFAS in the water supply.
These in turn could be used to develop draft mandatory regulations nationwide; a public comment period for draft regulations is expected this year.
The EPA also is developing improved methods for testing and quantifying the degree to which other PFAS chemicals are in the water; this should dovetail with efforts to determine the toxicity of other PFAS chemicals.
Part of dealing with PFAS contaminants also involves cleaning up what’s already in groundwater supplies. EPA is developing interim recommendations that can be used by state or federal agencies and private groups to clean up PFOS and PFOA contaminants in groundwater. These would be coupled with a new enforcement strategy to allow state, local and federal authorities to hold organizations responsible for PFAS releases.
The Michigan government, which formed a PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) in February to address contamination in the state, is encouraged by EPA’s actions but has concerns that the federal timetable isn’t more aggressive, said Scott Dean, communications director with the state Department of Environmental Quality.
“We look forward to receiving more clarity from EPA,” Dean said.
Canada took steps to deal with PFAS contaminants, notably long-chain perfluorocarboxylic acids (LC-PFCAs), PFOS and PFOA, in the environment beginning in 2006 with the publication of a state of the science report and a risk management strategy for PFOS. By 2012, those chemicals were included in the Prohibition of Certain Toxic Chemicals regulations.
There aren’t any reports of these substances being found in drinking water within the Ontario side of the Great Lakes basin. But not far outside the basin, contaminated well water was found in 2016 in Mississippi Mills and Smiths Falls, located in eastern Ontario west and south of Ottawa, respectively.
According to a spokesperson with Environment and Climate Change Canada’s (ECCC) chemicals management division, the ministry has assessed a number of PFAS substances for their potential harm to the environment under the Chemicals Management Plan, with PFOS, PFOA, and LC-PFCA found to be toxic and subsequently prohibited in the country with some exceptions.
The LC-PFCA, PFOS and PFOA chemicals are prohibited from manufacture and use under 2012 regulations. Drinking water screen values were published in 2018 by Health Canada that lay out safe levels of exposure to those two PFAS contaminants and others, though the ministry notes that only PFOS and PFOA have been sufficiently studied to fully assess the health risks.
LC-PFCAs, PFOS and PFOA also appear on the Canadian Environmental Protection Act’s Toxic Substances List as banned substances, save for specific exceptions such as firefighting foams. The Canadian government is looking at further restrictions on these substances to help protect a pair of endangered species – the southern resident killer whale and the Saint Lawrence Estuary beluga whale.
According to the ECCC’s spokesperson, comments received will be considered during the development of new regulatory amendments targeted for publication in winter 2020.
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.