EPA Might Finally Regulate PFAS But the Process Matters
By Genna Reed
The EPA announced last week that it is issuing a preliminary regulatory determination for public comment to set an enforceable drinking water standard to two of the most common and well-studied PFAS, PFOA and PFOS.
This decision is based on three criteria:
- PFOA and PFOS have an adverse effect on public health
- PFOA and PFOS occur in drinking water often enough and at levels of public health concern;
- regulation of PFOA and PFOS is a meaningful opportunity for reducing the health risk to those served by public water systems.
This is a good thing and should have happened sooner, but likely as a result of public pressure and the overwhelming evidence of harms caused by exposure to these chemicals, the EPA is officially embarking upon this long and arduous regulatory process with an uncertain outcome.
The process of setting such a standard, known as a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is a long one and we know that there are multiple decision points at which political interference, lack of transparency, or a failure to recognize the best available science can undermine such a process. If the EPA successfully sets a standard, it will mean that utilities will be required to monitor drinking water for PFOS and PFOA and use treatment techniques to keep levels below the standard, which will be especially helpful for communities in states that haven't set their own MCLs.
Here are some things to keep in mind and look out for as EPA begins its process to regulate PFAS in drinking water:
The SDWA Process Is Flawed
The Safe Drinking Water Act was signed into law by President Ford in 1974 and sets a regulatory process for setting drinking water standards. Then in 1996, Congress issued amendments which created a long list of hurdles that weakened EPA's ability to set health-protective standards for water contaminants. Some requirements include technology assessments and risk assessments that require the agency to state each significant uncertainty related to public health effects.
The amendments also require EPA to conduct a cost benefit analysis, which can weigh into the standard that is selected. In fact, EPA can choose to set a standard that "maximizes health risk reduction benefits at a cost that is justified by the benefits." As in all environmental and public health policy, it is much harder to quantify benefits to public health than it is to quantify costs to industry which makes this a natural place for industry to fight hard to document potential costs and advocate for a less stringent standard. A cost benefit analysis also opens up these regulations to more intense scrutiny from the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs which has been known to delay rules or even make substantive changes to the scientific basis of regulations all without adequate transparency.
The Trump Administration’s Track Record on Science-Based Protections Speaks Volumes
Generally, it's hard to have faith in the Trump Administration's EPA which leads all other government agencies in the count of attacks on science and has made decisions that benefit industry over public health time and time again. We've also witnessed the EPA recently drop the ball on a drinking water decision.
A long-awaited proposed MCL for perchlorate was issued in summer 2019 after beginning the regulatory process in 2011. The level was over three times less protective than its health advisory set in 2008 and out of sync with its own analysis published in 2016 and the conclusion of a peer review panel convened in 2018 to review that report. So what went wrong?
After layers of scientific input, including the development of a model to quantify the relationship between perchlorate and fetal brain development that was reviewed by SAB and went through public comments, the agency dismissed key studies using inadequate rationales and set a less health-protective standard. As the SDWA requires the agency to use the "best available, peer-reviewed science and supporting studies conducted in accordance with sound and objective scientific practices; and data collected by accepted methods or best available methods," Administrator Wheeler's EPA, closely advised by former industry representatives will be deciding what acceptable science and methods are.
Integrity of Science Advice and Peer Review Processes Must Be Upheld
Advisory committees and independent peer review bodies should be employed by the EPA to provide objective checks on the work of the agency that are open and accessible to the public. But changes recently made to the EPA's Science Advisory Board including skewing membership toward industry and consultants, holding fewer meetings or delaying important meetings and key decisions, moving away from consensus-based reviews, and exerting more control from the administrator and chair suggest that future advisory committee proceedings related to examining the best available science on PFAS may not be the kind of independent science advice process we'd like to see.
Upcoming Changes to Restrict Science and to Alter Cost Benefit Analysis Could Make Things Worse
The EPA's so-called 'transparency' rule, the supplemental piece of which could be released any day now, would require underlying data to be made public would severely limit the agency's ability to use much of the human health data that has been accumulating since PFOA and PFOS have been studied, thus hindering EPA's ability to designate a strong maximum contaminant level. Over two dozen human health studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals since a settlement agreement was reached in a lawsuit against the maker of PFOA, DuPont, and people living near DuPont's West Virginia Washington Works Plant.
The studies rely on interviews, questionnaires, and blood samples from 69,000 individuals and examine links between C8 exposure and a variety of diseases and health outcomes. Because the information collected by researchers for these studies includes sensitive and private information of participants, it would not be possible to make the underlying data public in order to comply with EPA's proposed rule. This means that some of the best available science identifying probable links between PFAS and diseases such as thyroid disease, testicular and kidney cancer, pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia, and diagnosed high cholesterol could be left out of any future EPA decisions made on these chemicals. As a result, health decisions made on this class of chemicals would be wholly inadequate to protect exposed populations.
The agency is also considering changing how it conducts cost benefit analysis for regulations such as the SDWA, which threatens to tilt the scales toward reducing industry costs over maximizing societal and public health benefits.
PFOA and PFOS Are the Tip of the (Seemingly Endless) Fluorocarbon Chain
While the EPA is asking for more information on other PFAS substances, the agency's decision to add PFOA and PFOS to the Contaminant Candidate List leaves the hundreds of variations of PFAS that have been manufactured as replacements to PFOA and PFOS, including short-chain PFAS chemicals, in regulatory limbo. We know that PFOA and PFOS are only two of the many highly fluorinated chemicals contaminating our drinking water. A recent EWG analysis tested drinking water across the country for 30 different PFAS chemicals and found that on average, each sample had six or seven different compounds present.
This "fingerprint" of PFAS mixtures is commonly found near industrial and military contamination sites. Industry's path of regrettable substitutions has set our government up for a scenario of perpetual regulatory catch-up. The agency needs to follow the science showing that the class of highly-fluorinated chemicals are persistent and bioaccumulative because of the chemical structure inherent in each variety. Failure to do so will give us a wholly inadequate picture of PFAS contamination and leave many communities to deal with PFAS contamination without federal support.
States Should Continue to Lead
As EPA sets out on this potentially decades-long process that may or may not yield a protective standard, communities across the country are dealing with PFAS contamination now. States are acting to help regulate these chemicals and are making amazing progress. Congress has also stepped up and gotten some key PFAS-related provisions included in the National Defense Authorization Act and introduced as a part of the PFAS Action Act, like labeling PFAS as hazardous substances so that manufacturers are responsible for paying to clean up contamination.
We need our government to do everything it can to stop PFAS contamination and exposure from wreaking havoc in communities across the country. And we need to make sure that scientific integrity is upheld as it makes key regulatory decisions so that our kids and future generations will be safe from the health risks associated with these toxic chemicals.
Genna Reed is a lead science and policy analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Reposted with permission from Union of Concerned Scientists.
By Matthew J. Landry and Heather Eicher-Miller
When university presidents were surveyed in spring of 2020 about what they felt were the most pressing concerns of COVID-19, college students going hungry didn't rank very high.
Why It Matters<p>This is not just a matter of growling stomachs. This is a straight-up education and health issue.</p><p>When students don't really know if they'll be able to get enough to eat, it can lead to a series of problems that make it harder to stay in school. For instance, it can affect <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318783028" target="_blank">academic performance</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sleep quality</a>. It can also lead to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105318783028" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">poor mental and physical health</a> outcomes for college students.</p><p>Food insecurity can also result in disrupted eating patterns if there is <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627945/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">not enough food or the variety</a> or <a href="https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">quality of what someone eats</a> is low.</p>
Campus Food Pantries<p>Previous strategies by <a href="https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/696254.pdf" target="_blank">colleges and universities</a> to fight hunger in their student bodies have varied widely. They include campus food pantries, emergency cash assistance and nutrition education through noncredit classes or workshopse.</p><p>These strategies were put to the test during the spring 2020 semester, when nearly <a href="https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Hopecenter_RealCollegeDuringthePandemic.pdf" target="_blank">three in five students</a> said they had trouble meeting their own basic needs during the pandemic.</p><p>College food pantries saw <a href="https://www.utrgv.edu/newsroom/2020/05/01-utrgv-student-food-pantry-seeing-recent-increase-in-demand-during-covid-19.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">big increases</a> in demand. Others said they <a href="https://www.theprospectordaily.com/2020/09/22/uteps-food-pantry-is-running-out-of-food/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">were getting less donated food</a>. This made it even harder to meet the rising food needs of students.</p><p>Campus food pantries largely rely on local or regional food banks, which have been dealing with <a href="https://www.indystar.com/story/news/local/2020/10/04/indiana-food-banks-call-more-food-stamps-meet-publics-need/3523683001/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">greater demand</a> than they are able to meet during the pandemic.</p><p>The many students who are attending college remotely will, of course, have less access to campus resources like food pantries.</p>
Federal Help<p>Other potential ways to get more food are government programs like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/recipient/eligibility" target="_blank">Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program</a>, known as SNAP. Yet the majority of able-bodied students are not eligible. Long-standing restrictions, like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/students" target="_blank">college SNAP rule</a>, prevent full-time students from receiving these benefits.</p><p>Such regulatory hurdles were created under the assumption that most students can rely on their parents to get enough to eat. However, college students have vastly different levels of financial support. Some students can rely on their parents for everything and others cannot rely on their parents for anything.</p><p>Decreased reliance on parental financial support is <a href="https://ir.library.louisville.edu/jsfa/vol47/iss3/5/" target="_blank">especially common</a> for first-generation students and students of color, who now make up <a href="https://1xfsu31b52d33idlp13twtos-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Race-and-Ethnicity-in-Higher-Education.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">45% of enrolled college students</a>.</p><p>Under normal circumstances, many college students might rely on part-time jobs to pay for their food.</p>
Short-Term Solutions<p>Universities and colleges can make it a priority to ensure students are aware of all available campus resources and services. They can also potentially help students apply for federal assistance benefits.</p><p>Campus food pantries are not a fully effective and efficacious solution for the scale of college food insecurity, but they can be a good interim solution to increase access to food for students.</p><p>Campuses without food pantries can start one, making use of resources the <a href="https://cufba.org/resources/" target="_blank">College and University Food Bank Alliance</a> provides. Schools with food pantries can try to get them to <a href="https://www.swipehunger.org/5campuspantry/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reach more students</a>.</p><p>Universities and colleges can also lean on one another for support. The <a href="http://wp.auburn.edu/endchildhungeral/alabama-campus-coalition-for-basic-needs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Alabama Campus Coalition for Basic Needs</a> is a great example of this. It brings together 10 universities across the state of Alabama collectively working to address student food insecurity.</p>
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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