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‘Forever Chemical’ Water Limits Unduly Late, EPA Admits (2)

Oct. 20, 2021, 3:40 PMUpdated: Oct. 20, 2021, 7:45 PM

The EPA acknowledged Wednesday it has unduly delayed drinking water limits for the two most well-studied chemicals within the huge “forever chemicals” group.

“We should have had a drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS years ago,” Radhika Fox, EPA’s assistant administrator for water, told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The hearing focused on the Environmental Protection Agency’s responses to the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, of PFAS, also dubbed “forever chemicals,” in the environment, particularly in U.S. waters. Fox referred to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), which the agency has known to be persistent and toxic for years.

The EPA expects to propose drinking water limits for PFOA and PFOS by next fall and issue a final rule in 2023, according to a roadmap it issued on Monday. The strategy details rules it will pursue, research it will conduct, and data it will require companies to provide over the next three years to control the large group of chemicals.

“The length of time this will take is very frustrating to me,” said Sen. Shelly Moore Capito (R-W. Va.), the committee’s top Republican, noting that the EPA’s roadmap lists many plans.

“I would urge you—because I think this drinking water level is so very important—to prioritize this. If not the top then near the top of the list because of the impact it will have on all of us as a country,” she said.

As Congress debates multiple bills to control PFAS, the agency would like to explore whether it could get statutory authorities that would help it move faster, Fox said. “There are areas where Congress could help us move forward,” she said, without offering details on what types of authorities it would like.

Use and Liability

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) said the aviation community should be allowed to keep using specialized firefighting foams that quickly suppresses jet fuel fires. The only foams that have long met the government’s standards contain PFAS, yet widespread use for training and other purposes has contaminated water throughout the U.S.

Airport operators also shouldn’t be held responsible for their historic use of firefighting foams the government mandated, Inhofe said.

The Defense Department and Federal Aviation Administration are working to identify alternative chemicals that work, Fox said.

“I can assure you we’re not looking to punish airport operators if they’re following guidance from FAA,” she said.

Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.), and other committee members who formerly served in the military, recalled their dependence on the chemicals.

“As a Naval flight officer, I flew with the confidence that firefighting crews on the ground would have the backs of my aircrew and others in the event of an accident. After all, the firefighting crews had a PFAS-containing foam that could be called upon to extinguish fires quickly,” Carper said.

Other life-saving uses of PFAS include their use to make stents and catheters. The chemicals are so inert they protect such implantable medical devices from the body’s or bacteria’s attack. And they make non-stick pans, waterproof jackets, and other products consumers welcome, Carper said.

Yet “something that saves lives can also put lives at risk,” he said.

‘They Didn’t Create It’

The EPA expects to propose a rule by next spring designating PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the the federal Superfund law, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. The agency would flag additional PFAS under consideration for the same designation at the same time, according to its roadmap.

Capito voiced concerns about the liability water utilities could face if even some PFAS are designated to be hazardous wastes. When waste water utilities remove PFAS, they generate biosolids that contain the chemicals, she said.

“They didn’t create it. They’re trying to clean it up,” she said.

Separately, but during the hearing, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), introduced the Prevent Release of Toxics Emissions, Contamination, and Transfer Act, or the PROTECT Act. It would add certain PFAS to to the EPA’s list of hazardous air pollutants, triggering Clean Air Act regulations.

PFAS have gotten their “forever chemicals” moniker, because some, such as PFOA and PFOS, linger for years in the human body and seemingly forever in the environment.

Scientists studying people exposed to the chemicals are most consistently finding that exposure increases cholesterol, Fox said in her written testimony. There’s also more limited evidence that they affect infant birth weights and the immune system, and that PFOA increases the risk of cancer while PFOS disrupts thyroid function, she said.

(Updates with link to PROTECT Act in 19th paragraph. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebecca Baker at; Chuck McCutcheon at