Giving Compass' Take:

• Laurel Schaider argues that the EPA' s regulation of chemicals known as PFAS must go further in order to protect the health and wellbeing of Americans.

• How can funders work to reduce PFAS in drinking water at scale? Who is most at risk from this type of contamination. 

• Learn more about drinking water contamination in the United States

After more than a year of community meetings and deliberations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced in February 2019 that it would begin the process of regulating two drinking water contaminants, seeking to stem a growing national public health crisis. If EPA follows through, this would be the first time in nearly 20 years that it has set an enforceable standard for a new chemical contaminant under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The chemicals at issue, PFOA and PFOS, have contaminated drinking water supplies across the country affecting millions of Americans. They belong to a class of synthetic chemicals called PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, that are widely used in products including firefighting foams, waterproof apparel, stain-resistant furniture, food packaging and even dental floss.

These chemicals have been linked with numerous health problems, including cancers, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, low birth weight and effects on the immune system. Studies show exposure to PFAS in children can dampen the effectiveness of vaccines – a topic my colleagues and I are currently investigating as part of a project called PFAS-REACH. In laboratory studies, low levels of PFAS can alter mammary gland development, which could have implications for increasing breast cancer susceptibility later in life.

What’s more, PFAS are highly persistent. Once released into the environment, they don’t break down – a fact that has led many to dub these substances “forever chemicals.”

Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, EPA has authority to restrict approval of new toxic chemicals. But in reality, new ones are approved all the time without thorough evaluations. Given concerns about the extreme persistence and mobility of PFAS compounds, in my view it makes good sense to restrict this entire class of chemicals.

There are precedents for such action. In 1979 the United States banned PCBs after these persistent and toxic chemicals became widespread in the environment. The global community banned chlorofluorocarbons in 1996 when scientists learned that they damage Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer. And in 2017 the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission voted to ban an entire class of toxic flame retardants from consumer products.

There is ample evidence for treating PFAS the same way. The question is whether federal regulators have the will.

Read the full article about regulating PFAS by Laurel Schaider at The Conversation.