Invisible Pollution: The urgent need for federal policy on ‘forever’ chemicals

Across the United States, we celebrated an early “Earth Day” win when the federal government announced last week a requirement for municipal water systems to remove six synthetic toxic chemicals from the tap water of hundreds of millions of people.

Often called “forever chemicals,” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have raised significant concern in the U.S. and globally because of their persistence in our bodies and the environment. A wide range of scientific studies have shown that PFAS chemicals are associated with the development of cancers, diseases in multiple organ systems, and immune deficiencies.

According to a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 98 percent of people living in the U.S. have PFAS chemicals in their blood.

How did our bodies get polluted with these insidious chemicals without us knowing? You can be exposed to PFAS chemicals through your drinking water and by the thousands of products you use every day: cleaning products, water-resistant fabrics, grease-resistant paper, nonstick cookware, personal care products like shampoo, dental floss, nail polish, and eye makeup, and stain-resistant coatings used on carpets and upholstery. Most of these products are not labeled as toxic–especially if they are being sold outside of the State of California.

In recent years, states such as California have taken progressive action against PFAS contamination by regulating use of specific PFAS chemicals in a range of products from textiles to cosmetics to food contact materials. Despite these moves toward change, PFAS contamination in our drinking water is still a major source of exposure.

The new drinking water standards, which cover six of the most studied PFAS chemicals, fulfill President Biden’s Environmental Justice promise to PFAS-contaminated communities, such as southeastern North Carolina and South Los Angeles. This marks the first time since the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Amendments that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set maximum contaminant levels for new contaminants, which is long overdue. 

We at the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) and together with our partner public health advocates celebrate this step forward and call on the EPA to take further and more systemic actions to regulate PFAS as a class for the health of us all.

Throughout our organization’s 27-year history, we have invested across our programs to tackle the PFAS lifecycle, from production and use to disposal. Our integrated PFAS strategies include: partnering with large institutions to influence their purchasing of safer and healthier market trends; exercising legal interventions such as litigation; and advocating for health protective policies at state and federal levels.

In California, new data show that PFAS have been found in water systems serving up to 25.4 million Californians (up from an estimated 16 million in the original analysis). Importantly, PFAS pollution continues to be more prevalent in state-identified disadvantaged communities, with up to 8.9 million Californians in these communities potentially impacted.

This is precisely why we took legal action in three areas of California after we found metal plating facilities discharging significant amounts of toxic PFAS chemicals into groundwater, with some at more than 100 times the drinking water limit set by the EPA. CEH seeks to require these facilities to eliminate the source of PFOA and PFOS (two particularly harmful PFAS chemicals) and clean up their operations. Given the ubiquity of PFAS in the environment, identifying these industrial sources of PFAS pollution will begin the long process of remediation. 

In North Carolina, CEH leads a coalition of nonprofit, community, and environmental justice groups who are fighting for information on the PFAS polluting their drinking water. The coalition filed a lawsuit after the U.S. EPA denied our petition under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and the case is now pending before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. If the Court rules in our favor, we will be entitled to a trial on the merits to show that EPA must order the chemical company Chemours to fund the health testing we requested.

And together with nonprofit organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) we have engaged in litigation along with the EPA to stop the rampant creation of PFAS during fluorination of plastic containers by Inhance Technologies. Inhance fluorinates hundreds of millions of containers each year, containers that are used for household cleaning products, foods, and personal care products. If successful, our work will provide protection against PFAS exposure to workers and millions of people who use plastic containers in their homes and workplaces. 

All of this vital work to stop PFAS pollution across its life cycle has made a difference. We have increased public awareness and driven regulatory action on the PFAS crisis and ensured impacted communities are represented and receive well-deserved remediation. 

But the time is now for the Biden Administration to go further and enact strong federal policy on PFAS to protect our health and that of future generations, and to deliver on the promises it set out to achieve when committing to protecting communities from rampant and ongoing environmental hazards and injustice. 

I believe that we have the right to say what belongs in our bodies, that children and other vulnerable people should be protected from toxic exposures. Let’s stop the flow of PFAS chemicals into our air, water, soil, and products. We have no time to waste.