Analysis: 7 things the White House should do to limit PFAS pollution

Last month, the White House outlined new and ongoing federal efforts to combat nationwide per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) pollution, especially agency actions to address the legacy of PFAS pollution in our water, air, food, and communities.

We commend the Biden-Harris Administration for taking these important steps to clean up the mess that has resulted from decades of failures in how the federal government evaluates and regulates PFAS risks. However, there is still much to be done on legacy PFAS pollution, and it needs to be done fast.

Addressing legacy PFAS pollution is not enough; it is crucial to prevent additional PFAS from entering commerce and further exposing us and our environment. To effectively do so, the federal government must move away from its current piecemeal, agency-by-agency approach to regulating PFAS, which too often leads to incomplete information and long-term environmental health consequences.

Here, we offer the Biden-Harris Administration seven recommendations to deal with PFAS in commerce using a whole-of-government approach, and finally start to turn off the PFAS tap.

The nation’s growing PFAS problem

PFAS are a broad category of widely used synthetic chemicals. Given their ability to effectively repel water, resist stains, lubricate surfaces and more, PFAS are often intentionally added to clothing, furniture, cosmetics, and food packaging, leading to human exposures. Additionally, decades of manufacturing, use, and disposal of PFAS and PFAS-containing products has significantly contaminated the environment, leading to further exposures via polluted air, water, and food. Unfortunately, because PFAS are so persistent, once in the environment, the chemicals don’t go away.

PFAS are also in the bloodstream of virtually all Americans. Even more alarming, PFAS have been detected in umbilical cord blood and breast milk, indicating that exposures begin in the womb and continue through one’s lifetime.

Some PFAS bioaccumulate in the body, making even the lowest exposures problematic. This poses a major public health concern, as epidemiological evidence suggests that PFAS exposure may lead to health problems such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, low birth weights, and impaired immune responses.

PFAS pollution is also an environmental justice problem, as communities of color and low-income populations are more likely to live near facilities that manufacture or use PFAS, making these groups especially vulnerable to the health risks.

PFAS are not simply a legacy issue. While the country has moved away from the use of some PFAS – for example, through corporate phase-outs or regulatory restrictions on PFOA and PFOS, where the evidence of their harm is overwhelming – the fluorochemical industry continues to develop new chemicals in that family in the name of innovation and economic profit. These newer iterations – often promoted as safer alternatives or pushed through regulatory loopholes – not only persist like those they attempted to replace, but they pose many of the same public health risks.

PFAS new and old have been approved or authorized for use by two key regulatory agencies in charge of allowing chemicals into commerce – the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Because these chemicals were not adequately evaluated before they entered U.S. commerce, unsafe PFAS continue to circulate in the marketplace, posing a threat to the environment and human health.

This vicious cycle must end.

Recommendations for the White House

Given that the Biden-Harris Administration is committed to making science-based decisions, we offer seven forward-looking actions the White House should take to address PFAS still being used, and to avoid putting more unsafe PFAS into commerce.

1. Adopt a comprehensive PFAS definition and regulate PFAS accordingly 

  • Require all federal agencies to use OECD’s PFAS definition to ensure a clear and consistent definition that accounts for all relevant fluorinated substances in federal initiatives.
  • Adopt a government-wide approach to regulate all PFAS as a class given their persistence and potential for similar impacts.

2. Demand adequate data for assessing risks from PFAS, new and old 

  • Develop a national PFAS testing strategy to require companies to fund and conduct studies on new and existing individual PFAS and PFAS mixtures. EPA’s testing strategy is a first step, but a broader and more integrated testing plan is needed across the entire federal government.
  • Require companies to submit sufficient data for PFAS risk assessment, which should include data on accumulation in plants, animals, and humans; testing on relevant complex health endpoints like cancer; developmental and reproductive toxicity; immune, endocrine, and neurobehavioral toxic effects; and information on exposures from all sources, especially during pregnancy.

3. Enhance reporting of PFAS uses and exposure 

  • Build upon EPA’s proposed PFAS reporting rule – which will require PFAS manufacturers and importers to report to EPA on their production, uses, and disposal of PFAS – by mandating that agencies require companies to report the same information on PFAS, regardless of regulatory jurisdiction or production volume.
  • Eliminate reporting loopholes for PFAS mixtures by requiring that all discharges of PFAS mixtures, regardless of their concentration, be reported by industry to EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory.
  • Require PFAS manufacturers to submit analytical standards to fingerprint their chemicals. Analytical standards are crucial to the federal government’s efforts to improve its testing methods, identify contaminants, and initiate enforcement actions.

4. Pause authorization of new PFAS and PFAS uses 

  • Issue a moratorium on the production of new PFAS and expanded use of PFAS already on the market, unless and until adequate data are available to make a proper safety determination.
  • Eliminate safety review exemptions for new PFAS and new uses of existing PFAS regardless of production volume or type of use.

5. Reassess previous decisions that allowed PFAS to come to market 

  • Use a cumulative risk assessment framework that considers co-exposures to other environmental chemicals, including other PFAS, and non-chemical environmental stressors.
  • Incorporate environmental justice considerations such as the disproportionately high exposures faced by populations living near facilities that manufacture or use PFAS, and workers involved in the production and use of PFAS or PFAS-containing products.

6. Monitor and restrict domestically produced and imported PFAS 

  • Establish a national program to monitor PFAS using broad screening tools such as total organic fluorine methods, which will allow regulators to move beyond looking at one PFAS at a time and improve their understanding of the presence of these chemicals in the environment.
  • Conduct inspections and take enforcement actions when companies that manufacture PFAS or PFAS-containing products do not comply with regulations.
  • Establish controls on imported products, as it is well known that PFAS-containing products, including some that contain chemicals banned or no longer manufactured in the U.S., such as PFOA, are manufactured abroad.

7. Apply the concept of essentiality in PFAS regulation 

  • Define criteria for essential and non-essential PFAS uses across the federal government.
  • Develop a path to eliminate non-essential uses of PFAS and substitute all uses with available non-PFAS alternatives.
  • Use the administration’s procurement power to purchase products free of non-essential PFAS.

The story around chemicals coming into the market and presenting an environmental and public health risk is not unique to PFAS. We have gone through similar experiences with other persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals, including PCBs/dioxins and organohalogen flame retardants.

It is time that we learn the lessons from the past and proactively regulate persistent chemicals like PFAS as a class using a whole-of-government approach. We urge the administration to consider these recommendations to protect the environment and public health from continued PFAS pollution.

Lauren Ellis is an Environmental Health Research Analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund. Maricel V. Maffini is a consultant to the Environmental Defense Fund.

Their views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.

Banner photo: President Joe Biden visits East End Elementary School in North Plainfield, New Jersey, on Monday, October 25, 2021. (Credit: Phil Murphy/flickr)