Biden Administration Declares War on ‘Forever Chemicals’: Nation’s Most Hazardous Substances Now Include PFAS

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)© Thinkstock / Photo Images / Canva

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took a decisive step in the fight against a group of ubiquitous chemicals known as PFAS—per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These compounds, dubbed “forever chemicals” because of their long persistence in the environment and in human bodies, have been linked to a host of serious health issues, including several types of cancer, damage to the liver and heart, and harm to the immune systems and development of children and infants.

The EPA’s action designated two of the most commonly encountered PFAS—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS)—as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, otherwise known as Superfund. This is not a slap on the wrist. The classification of these chemicals as hazardous substances now requires those who pollute with them to bear the financial burden of cleaning up their contamination.

In simpler terms, polluters will now be held accountable for their actions. The EPA’s final ordinance doesn’t just name and blame; it enables the investigation and cleanup of PFOA and PFOS contamination. It means that any leaks, spills, or other releases of these toxic chemicals are to be reported. More than just an isolated action, it builds upon, and strengthens, recent standards finalized to protect people and communities from PFAS pollution in drinking water.

This move is part of a broader plan by the Biden-Harris administration to safeguard public health, welfare, and the environment as outlined in the EPA’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap. In the words of EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan, “Designating these chemicals under our Superfund authority will allow EPA to address more contaminated sites, take earlier action, and expedite cleanups, while ensuring polluters pay for the costs to clean up pollution threatening the health of communities.”

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But there is more. The EPA issued a separate CERCLA enforcement policy, which clarifies that enforcement will be focused on parties who significantly contributed to the PFAS pollution. This includes manufacturers of PFAS, those who utilized PFAS in their production processes, federal facilities, and other major industrial parties.

This is a big deal. The “forever chemicals,” PFOA and PFOS, are now recognized as hazardous substances because they meet the statutory criteria for such designation. This means companies and entities are mandated to report any release of these chemicals that meets or exceeds one pound within a 24-hour period. But it’s not simply a bureaucratic move; it’s a vital one.

By designating these chemicals as hazardous, serious implications follow for federal entities that transfer or sell their property. They must now disclose information about the storage, disposal, or release of PFOA or PFOS on their property and ensure that any contamination has been addressed. They must also guarantee that further cleanup, if needed, will happen in the future.

The final rule will also prompt the Department of Transportation to list and regulate these substances as hazardous materials under the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act.

Grounded in scientific evidence, this action acknowledges the potential danger these substances, when released into the environment, pose to public health or welfare, or to the environment itself. PFAS chemicals, of which PFOA and PFOS are just two examples, can persist and accumulate in the human body for extended periods. Scientific studies have shown that exposure to PFOA and PFOS is linked to adverse health effects.

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Dr. Tracey Woodruff, Director of the Environmental Research and Translation for Health at the University of California, San Francisco, voiced her support for EPA’s actions. She said, “By listing PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Superfund Law, it means that these chemicals will have to be cleaned up from hazardous waste sites and polluters must pay the bill. This is great news for the many communities grappling with PFAS contamination—many of which are also low income and communities of color. This is another step toward protecting people from the health harms of this well-known toxic chemical.”

The EPA’s Superfund program has a proven track record of prioritizing and facilitating the cleanups of the nation’s most contaminated sites, those that present unacceptable risks to human health and the environment. The recently made regulatory changes will only enhance this established framework, providing further assurance that the entities that have contributed the bulk of the contamination will be held accountable.

The EPA’s enforcement policy will also ensure that certain parties, such as farmers, municipal landfills, water utilities, municipal airports, and local fire departments, where equitable factors do not support seeking cleanup or costs under CERCLA, will not be pursued.

This is a landmark day for public health, the environment, and the fight against the pervasive and stubborn problem of “forever chemicals.” The Biden administration’s actions today signal a significant shift in the battle against these dangerous substances, putting human health and environmental safety at the forefront.

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