EPA Announces New PFAS Limits, But Environmental Advocates Say More Action is Needed

New EPA limits on PFAS

The EPA has announced that it will propose the first-ever limits on the discharge of polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, in wastewater. The class of chemicals, often called "forever chemicals," can accumulate in the environment and the human body and contribute to health problems. However, public health and environmental activists say that these rules may be too little too late and that more must be done to protect communities already facing the consequences of rampant PFAS contamination.

Why This Matters

From drinking water to cosmetics to the top of Mount Everest, PFAS are now globally ubiquitous, and wreaking severe havoc on ecosystems and human health. These "forever chemicals" accumulate in the environment over generations and can cause cancer, high blood pressure, severe COVID-19 in humans, and infertility and death in animals.

In the US, 16 million people's drinking water has already been contaminated, and low-income communities and people of color are disproportionately at risk of exposure. Still, the monitoring, tracking, and regulating of PFAS has been lacking, especially from the federal government.

Environmental Working Group: EWG and Toxic Fluorinated Chemicals - 20 Years in the Fight Against PFAS, Spetember 1, 2021.

Too Little, Too Late

The new plan will place limits on the amount of PFAS that can be discharged in wastewater from facilities where PFAS are used in manufacturing and from chromium electroplating facilities. "This plan illustrates one way that EPA is following science to better protect public health and the environment," said Radhika Fox, Assistant Administrator for Water. "Importantly and for the first time, EPA is committing to limit PFAS in wastewater discharges."

But the Environmental Working Group (EWG) says that the new plan won't cover a vast majority of PFAS sources and explained: "The Environmental Working Group has used EPA enforcement data to identify nearly 30,000 potential industrial dischargers, many of which would not be included in the forthcoming ELGs."

EWG says that the new rule could cover as few as 14 facilities and fail to regulate wastewater PFAS from other sources like "paper mills, tanneries, textile manufacturers, plastics molders, and metal finishers." The group added that the time it will take to implement this rule is far too long.

In response to an earlier notice of public rulemaking, Representative Chris Pappas (D-NH) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced The Clean Water Standards for PFAS Act, which would require the EPA to develop effluent limitation guidelines for nine different industries within the next four years.

Vox: How "forever chemicals" polluted America's water, August 4, 2020.

Environmental Working Group: EWG Explains Phthalates, August 9, 2021.