You may not know what per and polyfluoroalkyl substances are, but you have potentially heard their acronym – PFAs. These substances are also often referred to as “forever chemicals” because once they are released into the environment, they never break down – can build up in our bodies, and accumulate in the blood or in other organs. Melanie Benesh is the Vice President of Government Affairs at the Environmental Working Group, and she talked with KGNU and Report for America’s Jackie Sedley about these substances and the current status of efforts to limit their harmful effects.
Decreases in EPA funding could mean “forever chemicals” are here to stay Jackie Sedley
PFAs are widely used in all kinds of consumer and industrial applications, mostly for their nonstick, high-heat resistant, water-repellent, stain-resistant properties.
“You see them in firefighting foams, in nonstick pans – Teflon is maybe the best known form of PFA – but also in things like food packaging, cosmetics, even your guitar strings and piano keys,” says Benesh. “So many, many different uses of PFAS, which is why it’s become such a pollution problem.”
PFAs have been around since the late 1930s. According to Benesh, major manufacturers of these substances were not up front with regulators about the risks of PFAs and how persistent they are in the environment.
“And so it took a long time for regulators to catch on and to realize that this was a problem. It was really in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, as the first lawsuit started to be filed against DuPont as a result of workers getting sick in one of the DuPont factories and people in the nearby towns starting to get sick as a result of their drinking water being contaminated with PFAS, that the issue started to come to light.”
Since then, testing for PSAs has increased. Benesh says we now know that these chemicals are likely affecting the drinking water of up to 200 million Americans.
Even though these issues have been talked about at a government level since the late 1990s, widespread action on a federal level was not taken until 2021 when the Biden Administration got involved. They began regulating PFAs in drinking water, in the air, and some of the industries that use PFAs and irresponsibly discharge them into the environment. When the administration put out a roadmap of these efforts in October 2021, Benesh and her colleagues at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) created a digital report card to keep track of their progress in meeting those goals. They also have an interactive map of PFAs contamination in the United States as of August 17, 2023.
Efforts to tamper down the negative impacts of PFAs are especially topical right now because of recent action taken by House Republicans. They have proposed budget cuts to the EPA that, if enacted, would jeopardize federal efforts to tackle toxic PFAs. These cuts could threaten to shrink the EPA’s budget to its lowest level in 30 years, according to the EWG.
“Time is also of the essence because there is so much PFAs contamination already in the environment. And so many people have been exposed for so much time that it’s really important that the EPA be able to move quickly to address this threat, but resources are critical to that. And so, if the government is withholding appropriations from the EPA, the EPA likely will be unable to meet the goals that they laid out in the roadmap in 2021.”
If these budget cuts are enacted, there are a number of practical consequences that could arise – especially when it comes to regulations and restrictions.
“If these budget cuts are enacted specific to PFAS, we may see rules that just never get finalized. So we may see drinking water regulations that don’t get written. We may see reporting rules that never go into place. We may never see strong restrictions on those industries and factories that are using PFAS and discharging it into local rivers where people might be swimming, where they may be fishing. The fish can also get contaminated. Sites that are already contaminated may be much slower to get cleaned up, if they get cleaned up at all.”
The EPA has made some progress in recent years toward laws regulating PFAs, that would help jumpstart the cleanup process at various contaminated sites and residential areas across the country. They have also proposed to regulate six different PFAs in drinking water – there are currently no federal limits on this.
Benesh says she cannot speculate on whether or not these budget cuts will happen, but that there will be an upcoming process between the House and the Senate to work out discrepancies in their budgets.
“Hopefully, the EPA can see some of the resources that they need, but the GOP-led proposal is very discouraging.”
According to the Colorado Sun, Colorado has used federal grants to help local water agencies test for PFAs, and continues to work on plans for new filtration in areas with higher levels. The state is also channeling federal grants for clean drinking water infrastructure from bills passed by Congress in 2021 and 2022.