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Gearing Up for Federal Action on PFAS

Posted by Jenn Collins on May 10, 2021


A hot-button topic among scientific researchers and regulators is per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Once considered a miracle of modern chemistry, PFAS can be found in food packaging, commercial household products (including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products, polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products and fire-fighting foams), and industrial equipment. PFAS are now widely referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ since they are extremely persistent in the environment and are capable of accumulation over time. The concern for adverse ecological and human health effects has strengthened the focus on PFAS.

The most comprehensively studied PFAS chemicals are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which have been voluntarily phased out by industry but are still persistent in the environment from decades of widespread use. GenX chemicals and perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS) have become the primary replacement PFAS materials.

No doubt, 2021 will be a landmark year for regulatory movement on PFAS issues, as the Biden Administration makes progress on environmental campaign promises to address PFAS. So far this year, the US  EPA has taken the following actions:

  • Issued the final revised regulatory determination for PFOA and PFOS, which is the first step to developing national primary drinking water standards;
  • Proposed a requirement for public water systems to collect occurrence data for 29 types of PFAS chemicals from 2023 and 2025 as part of a priority setting for the fifth unregulated contaminant monitoring rule;
  • Advanced research on a multi-industry study on PFAS in wastewater discharges;
  • Issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking for PFAS wastewater discharges to manufacturers and formulators to solicit information for future rulemaking under the Clean Water Act;
  • Released the updated PFBS toxicity assessment with developed reference doses, which provides a critical part of the scientific foundation for risk assessment.

Simultaneously, the bipartisan bill PFAS Action Act of 2021 was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives on April 13, 2021.  If enacted, this bill would entail the following regulations:

  • Require drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS be set within two years;
  • Designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances and hazardous air pollutants, and determine future designation of other PFAS chemicals;
  • Require testing of PFAS for toxicity to human health under TSCA;
  • Prohibit unsafe incineration of PFAS waste;
  • Set a moratorium on introduction of new PFAS into commerce.

As recently as April 27, 2021, EPA Administrator Michael Regan issued a PFAS memo calling for the establishment of the EPA Council on PFAS (ECP) which will be charged with developing a strategy to deliver critical public health protections and providing initial recommendations within 100 days of the council establishment.

Waterborne scientists and engineers are following the regulatory developments on PFAS closely while developing potential solutions for modeling exposure concentrations to further inform regulatory decisions.