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How Will the Biden Administration Tackle ‘Forever Chemicals’?

Health + Wellness
How Will the Biden Administration Tackle ‘Forever Chemicals’?
Thanasis Zovoilis / Stone / Getty Images

By Scott Faber

No candidate for president has ever pledged to make the toxic "forever chemicals" known as PFAS a priority – until now.

In his environmental justice plan, President-elect Joe Biden pledged to set enforceable limits for PFAS in drinking water and to designate PFAS as a hazardous substance under the Superfund cleanup law.

Here's why that matters.

PFAS chemicals are building up in the blood of every American, posing the risk of serious health problems. PFAS makes vaccines less effective and are linked to cancer, harm to the reproductive system and other health hazards.

More than 200 million Americans are likely drinking water and eating food contaminated with PFAS. Nevertheless, the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and Defense Department have for decades failed to address the chemicals' health risks. There are no federal limits on PFAS releases and uses and no requirements to clean up PFAS pollution.

Setting a national drinking water standard for PFAS under the federal Safe Drinking Water would have a huge impact on public health. Right now, only a few states require drinking water utilities to meet tough standards for PFAS in tap water. A national standard that would apply to all utilities would dramatically reduce our overall exposure to PFAS.

Designating PFAS as "hazardous substances" under Superfund would also be historic. By doing so, the Biden-Harris administration would not only kick-start the cleanup process but also require polluters to pay their fair share of cleanup costs.

But that's not all the Biden team has pledged. The president-elect also pledged to prioritize PFAS substitutes in the marketplace. That means Biden could direct the EPA and the FDA to quickly phase out non-essential uses of PFAS in food packaging, cosmetics, sunscreens and other everyday products.

The Biden team will have other tools at its disposal. The president-elect could quickly restrict industrial discharges of PFAS into the air and water by using the tools provided by the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, and expand reporting of these releases through the Toxic Release Inventory. Right now, more than 2,500 manufacturers are thought to be releasing PFAS with no limits.

The Biden-Harris administration can also direct the Defense Department to accelerate efforts to end the use of PFAS-based firefighting foam, impose a moratorium on the incineration of remaining stocks of PFAS foam, and accelerate PFAS cleanup at military installations. More than 300 military installations are known to be contaminated with PFAS.

No candidates have ever pledged to do as much to address America's environmental challenges as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. And that is especially the case for PFAS pollution.

Scott Faber is the Senior Vice President of Government Affairs at the Environmental Working Group.

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