By Brett Walton
Who's responsible for making sure the water you drink is safe? Ultimately, you are. But if you live in the U.S., a variety of federal, state and local entities are involved as well.
Setting Limits<p>The process for setting federal drinking water contaminant limits, which is overseen by the EPA, was not designed to be speedy.</p><p>First, the EPA identifies a list of <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ccl/contaminant-candidate-list-4-ccl-4-0" target="_blank">several dozen</a> unregulated chemical and microbial contaminants that might be harmful. Then water utilities, which are in charge of water quality monitoring, test their treated water to see what shows up. The identification and testing is done on a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ccl/basic-information-ccl-and-regulatory-determination#what-is-CCL" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">five-year cycle</a>. The EPA examines those results and, for at least five contaminants, as required by the SDWA, it determines whether a regulation is needed.</p><p>Three factors go into the decision: Is the contaminant harmful? Is it widespread at high levels? Will a regulation meaningfully reduce health risks? If the answer is "Yes" to all three, then a national standard <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ccl/basic-information-ccl-and-regulatory-determination#what-crieria-reg-det" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">will be forthcoming</a>. Altogether, the process can take a decade or more from start to finish.</p><p>Usually, however, one of the three answers is "No." Since the 1996 amendments were passed, the EPA has not regulated any new contaminants through this process, though it has strengthened existing rules for arsenic, microbes and the chemical byproducts of drinking water disinfection. The agency did decide in 2011 that it should regulate perchlorate — which is used in explosives and rocket fuel and damages the thyroid — but reversed that decision in June 2020, claiming that the chemical is not widespread enough to warrant a national regulation.</p><p>Two other chemicals have recently advanced to the standard-writing stage. In February, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler announced that the agency would regulate PFOA and PFOS, both members of the class of non-stick, flame-retarding chemicals known as PFAS. For those two chemicals, the EPA currently has issued a health advisory, which is a non-enforceable guideline.</p>
Omissions and Nuances<p>That is the regulatory process at the federal level. But there are omissions and nuances.</p><p>One big omission is private wells. Water in wells that supply individual homes is not regulated by federal statute. Rather, private well owners are responsible for testing and treating their own well water. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that about 15% of U.S. residents use a private well. Some states, such as New Jersey, require that private wells be tested for contaminants before a home is sold. County health departments might also have similar point-of-sale requirements.</p>
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By Carol Kwiatkowski
Like many inventions, the discovery of Teflon happened by accident. In 1938, chemists from Dupont (now Chemours) were studying refrigerant gases when, much to their surprise, one concoction solidified. Upon investigation, they found it was not only the slipperiest substance they'd ever seen – it was also noncorrosive and extremely stable and had a high melting point.
As PFAS are produced and used, they can migrate into soil and water. MI DEQ
Toxic Chemicals<p>A <a href="https://cen.acs.org/articles/83/i30/DuPont-Faces-Class-Action-Lawsuits.html" target="_blank">class-action lawsuit</a> brought this issue to national attention in 2005. Workers at a Parkersburg, West Virginia, DuPont plant joined with local residents to sue the company for releasing millions of pounds of one of these chemicals, known as PFOA, into the air and the Ohio River. Lawyers discovered that the company <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/magazine/the-lawyer-who-became-duponts-worst-nightmare.html" target="_blank">had known as far back as 1961</a> that PFOA could harm the liver.</p><p>The suit was ultimately <a href="https://www.levinlaw.com/dupont-c8-litigation" target="_blank">settled in 2017</a> for $670 million, after <a href="http://www.c8sciencepanel.org/index.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an eight-year study</a> of tens of thousands of people who had been exposed. Based on <a href="http://www.c8sciencepanel.org/publications.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple scientific studies</a>, this review concluded that there was a probable link between exposure to PFOA and six categories of diseases: diagnosed high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension.</p><p>Over the past two decades, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-018-0405-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers</a> have shown that many PFAS are not only toxic – they also <a href="https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">don't fully break down in the environment</a> and have accumulated in the bodies of people and animals around the world. Some studies have <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijheh.2019.10.008" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">detected PFAS in 99% of people tested</a>. Others have <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.emcon.2019.06.002" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">found PFAS in wildlife</a>, including polar bears, dolphins and seals.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e62ff1326c2d51afc5f0856eb1ec3795"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/JbHeE3YzeRA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Widespread and Persistent<p>PFAS are often called "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/these-toxic-chemicals-are-everywhere-and-they-wont-ever-go-away/2018/01/02/82e7e48a-e4ee-11e7-a65d-1ac0fd7f097e_story.html" target="_blank">forever chemicals</a>" because they don't fully degrade. They move easily through air and water, can quickly travel long distances and accumulate in sediment, soil and plants. They have also been found in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2018.06.009" target="_blank">dust</a> <a href="https://www.fda.gov/food/chemicals/and-polyfluoroalkyl-substances-pfas" target="_blank">and food</a>, including eggs, meat, milk, fish, fruits and vegetables.</p><p>In the bodies of humans and animals, PFAS <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2013.06.004" target="_blank">concentrate in various organs, tissues and cells</a>. The <a href="https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/whatwestudy/assessments/noncancer/completed/pfoa/index.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">U.S. National Toxicology Program</a> and <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp.asp?id=1117&tid=237" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Centers for Disease Control and Prevention</a> have confirmed a long list of health risks, including immunotoxicity, testicular and kidney cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility and thyroid disease.</p><p>Children are even more vulnerable than adults because they can ingest more PFAS relative to their body weight from food and water and through the air. Children also put their hands in their mouths more often, and their metabolic and immune systems are less developed. Studies show that these chemicals <a href="https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14070691" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">harm children</a> by causing kidney dysfunction, delayed puberty, asthma and <a href="https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/whatwestudy/assessments/noncancer/completed/pfoa/index.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">altered immune function</a>.</p><p>Researchers have also documented that PFAS exposure <a href="https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2011.2034" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduces the effectiveness of vaccines</a>, which is particularly concerning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.</p>
<div id="2f489" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dc8947d6f28cecd61b99688c8e1f751a"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1291831257790402560" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">PFAS, a class of chemicals that have been associated with health hazards including liver damage, birth defects, can… https://t.co/NtnVkmMQs0</div> — WIRED (@WIRED)<a href="https://twitter.com/WIRED/statuses/1291831257790402560">1596831547.0</a></blockquote></div>
Regulation Is Lagging<p>PFAS have become so ubiquitous in the environment that health experts say it is <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/health-effects/exposure.html" target="_blank">probably impossible to completely prevent exposure</a>. These substances are released throughout their life cycles, from chemical production to product use and disposal. Up to 80% of environmental pollution from common PFAS, such as PFOA, comes from <a href="https://doi.org/10.1021/es0512475" target="_blank">production of fluoropolymers</a> that use toxic PFAS as processing aids to make products like Teflon.</p><p>In 2009 the EPA established a health advisory level for PFOA in drinking water of 400 parts per trillion. Health advisories are not binding regulations – they are <a href="https://www.epa.gov/sdwa/drinking-water-contaminant-human-health-effects-information#dw-standards" target="_blank">technical guidelines</a> for state, local and tribal governments, which are primarily responsible for regulating public water systems.</p><p>In 2016 the agency <a href="https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-06/documents/drinkingwaterhealthadvisories_pfoa_pfos_updated_5.31.16.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">dramatically lowered</a> this recommendation to 70 parts per trillion. Some states have set <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/etc.4863" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">far more protective levels</a> – as low as 8 parts per trillion.</p><p>According to a recent estimate by the <a href="https://www.ewg.org/about-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Working Group</a>, a public health advocacy organization, up to 110 million Americans could be <a href="https://www.ewg.org/interactive-maps/pfas_contamination/map/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking PFAS-contaminated water</a>. Even with the most advanced treatment processes, it is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.watres.2013.10.045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">extremely difficult and costly</a> to remove these chemicals from drinking water. And it's impossible to clean up lakes, river systems or oceans. Nonetheless, PFAS are <a href="https://oversight.house.gov/legislation/hearings/toxic-forever-chemicals-a-call-for-immediate-federal-action-on-pfas" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">largely unregulated by the federal government</a>, although they are <a href="https://www.inquirer.com/news/pfas-action-act-congress-bill-house-pass-trump-epa-20200110.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">gaining increased attention from Congress</a>.</p>
Reducing PFAS Risks at the Source<p>Given that PFAS pollution is so ubiquitous and hard to remove, many health experts assert that the only way to address it is by <a href="https://www.apha.org/policies-and-advocacy/public-health-policy-statements/policy-database/2016/12/21/reducing-human-exposure-to-highly-fluorinated-chemicals" target="_blank">reducing PFAS production and use as much as possible</a>.</p><p><a href="https://pfascentral.org/" target="_blank">Educational campaigns</a> and <a href="https://toxicfreefuture.org/toxic-free-future-action-center/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">consumer pressure</a> are making a difference. Many forward-thinking companies, including grocers, clothing manufacturers and furniture stores, have <a href="https://pfascentral.org/pfas-basics/pfas-free-products/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed PFAS</a> from products they use and sell.</p><p>State governments have also stepped in. California recently <a href="https://news.bloomberglaw.com/environment-and-energy/ban-on-firefighting-foam-with-pfas-signed-by-california-governor" target="_blank">banned PFAS in firefighting foams</a>. Maine and Washington have <a href="https://www.natlawreview.com/article/attack-pfass-extends-to-food-packaging" target="_blank">banned PFAS in food packaging</a>. Other states are <a href="https://www.ncsl.org/research/environment-and-natural-resources/per-and-polyfluoroalkyl-substances-pfas-state-laws.aspx" target="_blank">considering similar measures</a>.<br></p><p>I am part of a group of scientists from universities, nonprofit organizations and government agencies in the U.S. and Europe that has argued for managing the entire class of PFAS chemicals as a group, instead of one by one. We also support an "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1039/C9EM00163H" target="_blank">essential uses" approach</a> that would restrict their production and use only to products that are critical for health and proper functioning of society, such as medical devices and safety equipment. And we have recommended developing safer non-PFAS alternatives.</p><p>As the EPA acknowledges, there is an <a href="https://www.epa.gov/innovation/innovative-ways-destroy-pfas-challenge" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">urgent need for innovative solutions</a> to PFAS pollution. Guided by good science, I believe we can effectively manage PFAS to reduce further harm, while researchers find ways to clean up what has already been released.</p>
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Glitter may add sparkle to the holiday season, but its afterlife is decidedly less shiny.
A new report finds that criminal prosecutions for polluting the environment in violation of the Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act have dropped to their lowest levels in decades under the Trump administration, as The New York Times reported.
By Eoin Higgins
President Donald Trump's EPA on Thursday finalized a rule to roll back regulations of a chemical found in rocket fuel that can cause brain damage in infants.
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A three judge panel in the Court of Appeals in Washington, DC listened to arguments Thursday on a Trump administration rollback of regulations that limit the emissions that power plants are allowed to spew into the atmosphere, as The New York Times reported.
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By Sharon Zhang
Back in March, when the pandemic had just planted its roots in the U.S., President Donald Trump directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to do something devastating: The agency was to indefinitely and cruelly suspend environmental rule enforcement. The EPA complied, and for just under half a year, it provided over 3,000 waivers that granted facilities clemency from state-level environmental rule compliance.
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The passing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg means the nation's highest court has lost a staunch advocate for women's rights and civil rights. Ginsburg was a tireless worker, who continued to serve on the bench through multiple bouts of cancer. She also leaves behind a complicated environmental legacy, as Environment and Energy News (E&E News) reported.
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wrote a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers last week to say that it would not oppose or put a stop to a huge copper and gold mine near the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery, as The Washington Post reported.
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The EPA announced that soybean farmers in 25 states are allowed to spray Alite 27, a cancer-causing weedkiller known to drift 1,000 feet. fotokostic / iStock / Getty Images Plus
In the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced that soybean farmers in 25 states are allowed to spray Alite 27, a cancer-causing weedkiller known to drift 1,000 feet from where it was sprayed, according to The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
To approve new use for the herbicide, which has the chemical name isoxaflutole and is manufactured by German-chemical giant BASF, the EPA had to skirt around the usual public comment period for the decision. The registration for isoxaflutole was opened for public comment, but it was never listed in the federal register. Agencies almost always provide notice that they are considering a new rule in the federal register, according to to The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
"The press release caught everyone off guard, we were just waiting for the EPA to open the comment period, and we never saw it," said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, referring to an EPA press release, as the AP reported.
The spray, which is already used on corn in 33 states, can be sprayed on crops that have been genetically engineered to resist the herbicide. Commodity farmers praised the decision and touted the weedkiller as an indispensable tool in their arsenal of supplies to push back against new "super weeds" that have grown resistant to several types of herbicides, including glyphosate, or RoundUp, the most commonly used herbicide in the U.S., as to The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting reported.
"One of the biggest challenges growers face is resistant weeds, and the soybean market needed a new residual active ingredient to help fight against them," said Darren Unland, Technical Marketing Manager, BASF Agricultural Solutions, in a company press release. "Alite 27 herbicide will provide growers with another pre-emergent herbicide option to layer into their herbicide program for effective, season-long control."
Comments like Unland's were the only ones that appeared in the public register. In fact, there were 54 comments in the public register and all of them were in praise of Alite 27, neglecting that it is a known carcinogen and that the drift of the herbicide is potentially harmful to nearby farms and farmers.
"Clearly no one from the public health community knew about this because no one commented," Donley said, as The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting noted. "Yet there was all these industry comments, all these positive comments. Someone was tipped off that this docket had been opened. One side was able to comment, the other wasn't."
While BASF and the EPA insist that they followed protocol and there was a month-long protocol for issuing public comment, the one-sided comments certainly raise eyebrows. The EPA, however, did put limits on the use of the potent herbicide, only allowing it in certain counties in 25 states and not in Indiana or Illinois, the two largest soybean-producing states.
"This is basically an herbicide that shouldn't be approved at all for any use. It's that bad really on both the human health and environmental fronts," said Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, a national nonprofit public interest and environmental advocacy organization working to protect human health and the environment, according to The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
Freese insisted he was ready with an arsenal of facts for the public comment period, but he never saw it. Amongst the facts that Freese wanted to present was the EPA's own statement that isoxaflutole is a likely carcinogen that damages human liver enzymes, it contaminates ground water, it travels long distances from where it was sprayed, and its label is extremely complicated. It requires farmers to know their soil type and the height of their water table.
"It's outrageous," Freese said to The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. "They knew this is a bad news chemical, and it was very likely done because they didn't want to give environmental groups the opportunity to comment on this, so they can avoid scrutiny."
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