Skip to content

These toxins last ‘forever.’ But the EPA is going slow

PFAS were used for decades to make cookware, microwave popcorn bags, carpeting, rainwear and shoes

Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, prepares to testify before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in August. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, prepares to testify before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in August. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When two officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality showed up at Sandy Wynn-Stelt’s Belmont, Michigan, house in July of 2017 asking to test her private water well, she didn’t anticipate trouble.

So she was stunned when they discovered incredibly high levels of a class of chemicals that are raising serious pollution and health concerns as communities around the country discover their water is contaminated with them.

The compounds, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, were used for decades in manufacturing products such as cookware, microwave popcorn bags, carpeting, rainwear and shoes, as well as polishes, cleaning products and fire retardants because they make surfaces resistant to heat, water and staining.

The threat posed by PFAS, which are so slow to degrade they’ve been nicknamed “forever chemicals,” and safety concerns about their replacements have become a new national environmental crisis.

“It’s more than just a crisis, it’s actually a tragedy when you read about the people who’ve been affected, like the folks in West Virginia,” said Daniel Rosenberg, an environmental attorney and director of the toxics program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He was referring to the thousands of people in and around Parkersburg, West Virginia, who were exposed to a form of PFAS used at a DuPont and Chemours Co. plant that has manufactured Teflon cookware and other products for decades. In 2017 DuPont agreed to pay more than $670 million to settle 3,550 damage claims related to the exposure.

Congress is starting to wake up to the problem, but the EPA under the Trump administration has been slow to act: a long-awaited action plan released Thursday did not include clean water standards for two types of PFAS chemicals — PFOA, also called the Teflon chemical, and PFOS, better known as Scotchgard. Instead, the agency offered cleanup guidance to states and said it will initiate rule-making for maximum drinking water contaminant levels at the end of the year, a delay that drew immediate criticism from activists.

House Democrats are also in the initial stages of investigating the administration’s possible suppression of a report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found certain PFAS could be dangerous in drinking water in amounts significantly below the current EPA health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. House Energy and Commerce Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee Chairman Paul D. Tonko, a New York Democrat, had said the panel’s approach to oversight of the chemicals would depend on whether the EPA set a drinking water standard.

Inaction at the federal level has given way to action at the state level to find out the scope of the problem. At least seven states, including California, New York, New Jersey and Vermont, have either promulgated or proposed PFAS regulations for drinking water.

Last spring, Michigan began conducting statewide drinking water sampling for the chemicals, the first initiative of its kind. To date it has found at least 38 contaminated sites, and state data show almost 1.9 million people get drinking water with at least some degree of contamination.

In Wynn-Stelt’s water, the state found PFOS and PFOA at levels 540 times higher than considered safe by the EPA.

One state official told the local press it was the highest concentration of those chemicals found in a drinking-water well “in the U.S. so far.”

When Wynn-Stelt and her late husband, Joel, bought their home decades ago, they were unaware the surrounding land had been used previously by a leather tannery owned by Wolverine Worldwide, makers of a popular shoe called Hush Puppies. The plant treated the shoes with Scotchgard and dumped the waste on the adjacent land.

“I had no idea there had been dumping there,” Wynn-Stelt said. “When we moved here, all of this acreage around us was a Christmas tree farm. Isn’t that idyllic? Who doesn’t want to move to a Christmas tree farm?”

After the state’s alarming findings, Wynn-Stelt had her blood tested. The results showed a presence of the chemicals in her body 750 times higher than the national average, based on a study last year by the American Red Cross. Her husband died in March 2016 from liver cancer.

Since her water was tested, the question of whether the contamination was a factor in his illness has dogged her. She remembers that after the water was first tested, she called her sister-in-law Peggy to tell her about the test results.

“I was like, ‘God, the weirdest thing happened to me today. I have this thing called PFAS,’” she recalled. Her sister-in-law immediately burst into tears. “That’s what killed Joel. I know that’s what killed Joel,” she said.

The same year he died, EPA released a new lifetime health advisory for the chemicals in drinking water saying the chemicals were dangerous at levels significantly lower than previously believed.

Flashback: Protesters interrupt confirmation hearing on Trump’s EPA pick

Loading the player...

A host of concerns

The most consequential study conducted so far of PFOS and PFOA effects on humans came out as a result of the class-action lawsuit against DuPont over the exposures in West Virginia. It found probable links between PFOS and PFOA exposure and six diseases: heart disease, thyroid disease, hypertension and preeclampsia, ulcerative colitis, and kidney and testicular cancer.

The study did not find a probable link to liver cancer, but animal studies have suggested the human liver is particularly susceptible to possible effects from these chemicals.

Michigan is far from alone in grappling with the problem; experts say if you look for PFAS almost anywhere, you’ll find it in some quantity. A project out of Northeastern University in Boston has since then identified at least 196 polluted sites across the country — from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Warminster, Pennsylvania, to Hoosick Falls, New York, and Parchment, Michigan — sourced to factories, military bases and other sites.

And if EPA’s standards are strengthened to those recommended by the federal CDC, the number of contaminated sites would likely grow exponentially.

“Communities are very concerned about this,” said Liz Hitchcock, director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, an environmental group focused on the problems. “PFAS is such a crazy ball of wax because of the many uses for these chemicals.”

For most of the second half of the 20th century, PFAS chemicals spread through the environment in popular products and flame retardants that were added to everything from baby clothes to furniture as a way to reduce fire damage. But as sales of the products boomed, the manufacturers of the chemicals, including 3M and DuPont, did their best to hide studies raising serious questions about their safety.

In 2000, 3M announced it would no longer manufacture them and later reformulated Scotchgard, one of its top-selling products. However, DuPont continued to produce PFOA.

In 2005, the EPA discovered that for years DuPont failed to submit studies and health monitoring information that showed the chemicals may be toxic to humans. The lack of disclosure violated a 1976 law known as the Toxic Substances Control Act, and DuPont reached a settlement with the agency to pay $10.3 million in civil penalties and perform more than $6 million in environmental projects — at the time the largest civil penalty the EPA had ever assessed.

Despite the widespread use of the chemicals and mounting evidence of the harm they can do to humans, the EPA has done little but issue advisories suggesting what levels of exposure might be problematic.

“There are currently no enforceable regulations for the entire class of PFAS chemicals,” said Anna Reade, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. On top of that, the EPA continues to allow hundreds of new PFAS formulations into the marketplace every year, she said.

Reade’s NRDC colleague, Rosenberg, said there’s plenty of blame to go around.

“It’s not the case that only the Trump administration has allowed this dangerous class of chemicals to proliferate in our stream of commerce, in our drinking water and in our environment,” he said. “That is a shared responsibility of multiple administrations. And it further underscores how broken the system has been and still is — the TSCA system, the Safe Drinking Water Act and other mechanisms that haven’t been used to stop the chemicals.”

An evolving crisis

In 2006, faced with growing evidence of health hazards and pressure from the EPA, the last producers of PFOS and PFOA voluntarily agreed to phase them out by 2015.

Despite the phase-out, PFOS and PFOA are still in the blood of most Americans. While levels in people’s bloodstreams have declined since 2006, recent CDC estimates suggest at least 95 percent of the U.S. population has at least some amount in their blood.

At the same time, manufacturers developed PFAS substitutes that some believe to be as harmful as the old compounds. In response, the companies say the fluorine-carbon chains in the new chemicals are shorter, so they are less likely to accumulate in the human body or be harmful to human health.

But there is little indication that consumers should have peace of mind. In November the EPA released a draft toxicology profile suggesting that two replacement chemicals, GenX and PFBS, while less persistent than PFOS and PFOA, carry similar concerns.

Last fall Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute for Environmental Sciences, told a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee the persistent and accumulative nature of the chemicals makes them similar to the insecticide DDT, which continues to be found in people and nature even though it was banned by the EPA in 1972.

“They never go away,” Birnbaum said of the chemicals. “They will persist in the environment, essentially, certainly as long as any of us are here,” she said, adding that many of the toxins have half lives of many years. “I think that is a concern for this class of compounds, that they will be with us long after they stop being made.”

According to the EPA, there are 4,730 PFAS-related chemicals identified globally. Of those, 1,220 are on the agency’s list of chemical substances made, processed or imported into the United States, and roughly 550 have reportedly been used in U.S. commerce in the past decade.

None of these chemicals have faced restrictions in commerce. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, EPA can restrict use of a chemical through Significant New Use Rules. Yet despite multiple attempts in recent decades, the agency has not been able to finalize a rule for even PFOS and PFOA, let alone the replacement chemicals.

In 2016, Congress, acting at the behest of industry requests for a new TSCA law, passed an update that required EPA to evaluate compounds of greatest concern to public health and safety. PFAS were not on the initial list, but the EPA in the Obama administration was studying whether new limits were needed.

The agency’s handling of the chemicals shifted significantly after the start of the Trump administration, with efforts to suppress a report on the chemicals’ effects and a slowdown in developing a PFAS management plan.

In May, the Union of Concerned Scientists obtained emails through the Freedom of Information Act showing Trump administration officials discussed the explosive nature of a draft Health and Human Services Department toxicology profile of some of the chemicals, including PFOA and PFOS.

When the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the CDC put out the report in June, the public learned why the officials were concerned about a backlash: It said PFOA and PFOS could be dangerous in drinking water at levels significantly lower than the EPA standard.

An agency document released in November affirmed their recommendations: While the EPA’s advisory limit for both PFOS and PFOA was 70 parts per trillion, the CDC recommended as low as 21 parts per trillion for PFOA and 14 parts per trillion for PFOS.

Hill in the middle

The confusion caused by dueling narratives from the EPA and the CDC means that for any policy to really make an impact on PFAS, lawmakers will have to pick a side in an ongoing brawl between the chemical companies, the federal government, health experts and clean water activists over the potential dangers from water contaminated by the chemicals.

Some states have chosen to side with the CDC. In December, New York’s drinking water quality council estimated 23 percent of the state’s drinking water systems are contaminated at levels above HHS’ recommendations — roughly 645 systems.

The council recommended Gov. Andrew Cuomo set the first enforceable drinking water standard for PFOS and PFOA at 10 parts per trillion — seven times more stringent than the EPA’s lifetime health advisory.

At the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing in November, Patrick Breysse, director of the CDC agency that oversaw the toxicological profile, said there is great uncertainty about so-called safe limits.

“If I can maybe be clear, that’s the level below which we know there’s no concern, above which there might be concern. Things are rarely in this arena this black and white where above a number is bad, below a number’s good,” Breysse said. “It’s a complex calculus.”

Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican, raised the issue during his re-election campaign. At least two towns in his district, Horsham and Warminster, have wrestled with rampant contamination from decades of fire retardant use at military bases in each community.

In September, he announced he was forming a task force to address the issue and invited local officials to participate.

At its first meeting in October, he and his staff took suggestions from the public on what was needed to develop legislative solutions.

The next week, he brought in officials from the Defense Department and the EPA. The meeting was emotional and at times tense. But Rick Rogers, director of the water protection division in EPA’s Region 3, provided the most controversy when he tried to reassure the audience that any contamination below EPA’s threshold for drinking water — 70 parts per trillion — was safe. He compared it to other contaminants like arsenic or radioactivity.

“At 50 parts per trillion, we’re talking about such a low level that, knowing what I know, I wouldn’t be concerned about that,” he said. He noted there are plenty of water systems with 50 percent of the maximum level of a contaminant.

When asked after the task force meeting if he believed Rogers’ claim about the drinking water threshold, Fitzpatrick cited the CDC profile and said it was clear “nobody really knows” what’s safe yet.

“Nobody’s talking about, ‘When are we going to definitively determine what, if anything, is a safe level?’” he said.

Activists, lawmakers and state governments alike hoped the EPA’s PFAS management plan, promised by officials throughout last year, would provide some clarity. But they were disappointed by the action plan unveiled Thursday.

“We don’t have to have [a maximum contaminant level] in order to enforce a cleanup,” said EPA acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler at an event in Philadelphia where he announced the plan. He added that the agency has continued to advise a limit of 70 parts per trillion in the meantime.

While it is notoriously difficult for agencies to set drinking water thresholds for new chemicals under the Safe Drinking Water Act, that hasn’t stopped pressure from Republicans such as Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, home to the DuPont factory.

However, the issue is unlikely to hold up the nomination of Wheeler to formally head the agency. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced Wheeler’s nomination Feb. 5 on a party-line vote, 11-10.

Capito, who sits on the committee, voted to advance the nomination, saying she received commitments from Wheeler to address her concerns over the agency’s PFAS management plan.

“However, I intend to closely track the steps EPA and other agencies are taking to address this public health and environmental health crisis, which has had a particular impact on West Virginians living in affected communities, to ensure that the federal government is efficiently responsive to their concerns,” Capito said.

Mike Magner and Elvina Nawagun contributed to this report.

Recent Stories

FDA delays menthol ban following lobbying war

House tees up censure vote for Rep. Jamaal Bowman over fire alarm pull

Framework appropriations deal elusive as session winds down

War supplemental stymied in Senate over border holdup

Congress takes holiday decorating seriously. This year it caused an outcry

House Judiciary panel advances renewal of surveillance authority