Two PFAS chemicals designated hazardous substances under Superfund law

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a final rule Friday to designate two types of PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances. Those two chemicals are perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOA, and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS.  PFOA is the chemical that DuPont formerly used to make Teflon while PFOS was used as an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard. […]

Two PFAS chemicals designated hazardous substances under Superfund law

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a final rule Friday to designate two types of PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances. Those two chemicals are perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOA, and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS. 

PFOA is the chemical that DuPont formerly used to make Teflon while PFOS was used as an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard. According to the Environmental Working Group, which has advocated for PFAS regulation and cleanup, those products were phased out in the United States due to concerns about health risks.

“The rule will finally hold PFAS polluters accountable,” Melanie Benesh, EWG’s vice president for government affairs, said in a press release. “It ensures that polluters, not taxpayers, bear the cost of cleaning up these toxic forever chemicals.”

While PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured in the United States, the American Cancer Society says people can still be exposed to them because they are still used in other countries and may be imported in products manufactured in other countries.

The EPA says the classification of the two chemicals as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund, will make it easier to ensure the parties responsible for PFAS contamination pay to clean it up.

The designation comes as part of the EPA’s efforts to address PFAS contamination, which started with the launch of a PFAS strategic roadmap in 2021.

Some wastewater utilities and landfills have expressed concern that the new designation will lead to them being forced to pay for PFAS contamination from waste products that enter their systems.

Because of those concerns, the EPA issued a separate CERCLA enforcement discretion policy.

“EPA will focus on holding responsible entities who significantly contributed to the release of PFAS into the environment, including parties that manufactured PFAS or used PFAS in the manufacturing process, federal facilities, and other industrial parties,” this policy states. “EPA does not intend to pursue entities where equitable factors do not support seeking response actions or costs under CERCLA, including, but not limited to, community water systems and publicly owned treatment works, municipal separate storm sewer systems, publicly owned/operated municipal solid waste landfills, publicly owned airports and local fire departments, and farms where biosolids are applied to the land.”

Addressing PFAS contamination is also part of President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot, which aims to reduce the rates of cancer.

Dr. Tracey Woodruff is the director of the University of California San Francisco’s Program on Reproductive Health and Environment and a professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences as well as the director of the Environmental Research and Translation for Health, or EaRTH Center at UCSF. 

She said in a press release that the designation is “another important step by EPA to protect people and communities from harmful PFAS chemicals, including legacy PFAS contamination across the U.S.”

In New Mexico, PFAS chemicals have been documented in rivers downstream from urban areas and in groundwater near military bases and airports. 

In a statement, New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney said his agency applauds the EPA for “taking important steps to protect people from the health risks posed by PFOA and PFOS in communities across the nation.”

However, Kenney said more actions are needed to protect New Mexicans from PFAS.

 “In New Mexico, communities will not be safe from PFAS pollution until the U.S. Department of Defense commits to following rules and taking responsibility for cleaning up the groundwater around their Air Force Bases,” he said, referencing groundwater contamination near bases that has led to legal disputes between the Department of Defense and the state.

PFAS chemicals are prevalent throughout the world due to their widespread use. They can be found in nonstick cookware, upholstery, carpets, cleaning supplies, cosmetics, fire suppression foams and other places.

“The science is clear that PFAS chemicals are linked to a wide range of health harms including cancer, damage to cardiovascular and immune systems, poor pregnancy outcomes, and effects on the developing child,” Woodruff 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.”

Liz Hitchcock, the director of the federal policy program of Toxic-Free Future known as Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, described the designation as “an important step forward that will go a long way toward holding PFAS polluters accountable and beginning to clean up contaminated sites across the country.”

But, Hitchcock said in a press release, more needs to be done. She said the “full class of PFAS” should be designated as hazardous. There are nearly 15,000 PFAS chemicals, which are man-made substances that don’t break down easily in natural environments.

Hitchcock said that further pollution should be prevented by ending the use of PFAS in common products. 

“President Biden understands the threat that ‘forever chemicals’ pose to the health of families across the country. That’s why EPA launched its PFAS Strategic Roadmap, a whole-of-agency approach to protecting public health and addressing the harm to communities overburdened by PFAS pollution,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a press release. “Designating these chemicals under our Superfund authority will allow EPA to address more contaminated sites, take earlier action, and expedite cleanups, all while ensuring polluters pay for the costs to clean up pollution threatening the health of communities.”

The designation of the two types of PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances comes on the back of the EPA setting drinking water standards for some of the more common PFAS chemicals earlier this month, including PFOA and PFOS.

Meanwhile, researchers at places like Sandia National Laboratories are looking for cost-effective ways to remove PFAS chemicals from drinking water.

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