The EPA under a future Biden administration is expected to quickly move to set regulations on “forever chemicals” in water and other areas, but not to restrict the entire group of thousands of the substances, attorneys said in recent interviews.
The Environmental Protection Agency is already expected to set national drinking water limits for two of these chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, said Cynthia AM Stroman, a partner in King & Spalding LLP’s Washington, D.C. office.
President-elect Joe Biden’s EPA would be expected to set standards for both of those chemicals and possibly other per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, that states and federal agencies are finding in drinking water, she said.
The incoming administration also could set waste remediation and other limits for some PFAS, said Lynn Bergeson, managing partner of Bergeson & Campbell P.C., which specializes in chemical policies.
Yet as a centrist, Biden is likely to rely on scientific information and insights into how medical and other high-value industries use some of these chemicals in order to determine a strategy for many of the substances, she said, voicing a perspective shared in interviews with three other chemical policy analysts.
Many Industries Use PFAS
There are thousands of PFAS, of which at least 600 are known to be used in the U.S. by the aerospace, automotive, and various industrial sectors to make products as varied as semiconductor chips, cables, food packaging, and medical stents that keep patients’ blood flowing.
But PFAS are an emerging concern across the country because some, such as PFOA and PFOS, have migrated into the soil, water, and air during decades of production and use.
While PFOA and PFOS are no longer made in the U.S., sunlight, weather, and microbes don’t break them and similar PFAS down. That means they persist in the environment and can get into water, crops, and farm animals. Exposed people may have weaker immune systems, increased risk of cancer, and other health problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Control, Data Gathering Actions
The EPA could quickly take several actions to control PFAS and get more information about them, according to Eve Gartner, managing attorney for the Toxic Exposure and Health Program at Earthjustice, a nonprofit legal law organization.
These include requiring factories seeking Clean Water Act permits to disclose the PFAS they release and their volume; stopping approvals of new PFAS; removing a “loophole” in a regulation that requires environmental releases of certain PFAS to be reported, in order to increase the information the EPA receives; and barring PFAS incineration, pending information on its impacts.
Meanwhile, the EPA’s research office is conducting its own research and funding academic research on a range of monitoring, disposal, and toxicity questions surrounding PFAS.
The office is also preparing analyses of five specific PFAS: perfluorononanoate (PFNA), perfluorobutyrate (PFBA), perfluorohexanoic acid (PFHxA), perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS), and perfluorodecanoate (PFDA).
Those analyses, scheduled for release for public comment and scientific review next year, are examining the hazards of these chemicals, and what amount of them could be harmful. They could help the EPA move beyond PFOA and PFOS, the two most well-studied of the bunch, to consider limits on others in the family of chemicals.
The EPA’s chemical, water, and other regulatory programs typically use the research office’s conclusions as they decide whether a chemical should be restricted and, if so, the stringency of controls that would protect people’s health.