Will the federal government finally take significant action against per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have contaminated our nation’s drinking water for years? Advocates of the PFAS Action Act hope Joe Biden’s win will help the bill become law. This bill mirrors several pledges the President-Elect made in his environmental platform, which prioritized PFAS contamination.
PFAS contamination has emerged as a serious human health threat in recent years, yet efforts that would have given federal regulators authority to tackle PFAS pollution perished in the Senate earlier this year.
Now legislators leading the charge for better PFAS oversight plan to reintroduce the PFAS Action Act with the hope it will stand a better chance of passing under the incoming Biden Administration.
PFAS are a family of manmade chemicals with strong water- and oil-repellant properties. These chemicals have been widely used in the manufacture of non-stick, stain-resistant and water-proofing coatings on fabric and cookware, in firefighting foam and a multitude of other products. The chemicals have been dubbed “forever chemicals” for their inability to break down and remain in the environment and in the human body. Over the decades, they have accumulated in the environment throughout the country.
Another shot for the PFAS Action Act
New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who spearheaded the passage of the PFAS Action Act in January, is expected to reintroduce the bill in the coming year.
If passed, the bill would direct the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to designate all per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals as hazardous substances under the federal law that governs the cleanup of Superfund sites. Doing so would unlock resources and place PFAS-contaminated sites on a National Priority List for cleanup.
The bill would also require the EPA to set a maximum safety level for PFAS exposure that safeguards human health, protects populations such as children and pregnant women who are at the greatest risk, and directs manufacturers to send EPA data on volumes, uses, and exposure of the chemicals.
“Addressing forever chemicals continues to be a top priority for Congressman Pallone,” his office said in a statement, “according to NJ Spotlight News. “He was pleased to push through the PFAS Action Plan earlier this year in the House but was disappointed when the Senate refused to act. It will remain a priority for the congressman in the upcoming Congress.”
New Jersey’s PFAS problem
Rep. Pallone’s interest in the bill is fueled by widespread PFAS contamination in his home state. According to a 2014 New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection report, two-thirds of public water systems in the state tested contained PFAS.
In areas where the chemical has been dumped and near airports where PFAS firefighting foam containing PFAS is used, PFAS contamination poses a major health risk to families who rely on private wells for drinking water. The chemicals can also enter waterways and contaminate municipal water supplies, which is where a vast majority of Americans receive their drinking water.
Last month, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the attorney general’s office filed a Natural Resource Damages suit against Solvay Specialty Polymers, a chemical company based in southern New Jersey, alleging the company polluted water, soil and air with PFAS for years, and had not taken adequate measures to clean up the pollution.
According to Spotlight News, the state blames Solvay for PFAS water contamination in a nearby community where levels of the chemical were found to be 11 times higher than the safety threshold. Public and private water utilities across the country are having to install costly filtration systems to remove PFAS chemicals from the water supply.
Raising awareness of PFAS
Advocates for tighter regulation say that PFAS water contamination is a bigger problem than many people realize.
“Part of the problem is that people have never heard of PFAS, don’t know what it does,” Rep. Pallone said at a press conference last year. “Part of what we’re doing with this legislation and this press conference is to make people aware that this is a problem. It’s only relatively recently come to the public’s attention.”
Effects on human health
Chemicals in the PFAS family vary in toxicity. The most commonly produced PFAS are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), which also happen to be among the most toxic.
Epidemiological studies have shown that exposure to the chemicals, even in trace amounts, can lead to serious health problems. These may include developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, and skeletal variations; cancer, including testicular, kidney, and pancreatic cancer; liver damage; adverse immune effects, such as antibody production and weakened immunity; cholesterol changes, and thyroid problems, to name a few.
These health issues have forced public water suppliers to take action and ensure these chemicals are removed from their drinking water. This includes suing chemical manufacturers or companies that use PFAS and seeking compensation to install and operate filtration systems that are capable of removing PFAS.
“The EPA’s Action Plan sets forth several ways by which the agency plans to combat the growing PFAS contamination crisis, including regulation,” said Beasley Allen lawyer Ryan Kral, who handles cases in the firm’s Toxic Torts section. “While that would be a significant step in the right direction, the EPA’s 2009 and 2016 lifetime health advisories, and an increasing number of scientific studies, already confirmed that PFAS pose human health risks. We are pleased to see Congress now focus on these dangerous chemicals.”
In addition to drinking PFAS-contaminated water, people can also be exposed in other ways: inhaling dust in spaces with carpets, textiles, and other consumer products treated with PFAS to resist stains; surface water in lakes and ponds; or consuming fish from contaminated bodies of water.
Beasley Allen lawyers in our Toxic Torts Section work to protect people and property from toxic chemicals and environmental pollution that results from negligence and wrongful conduct. Our lawyers are currently investigating water contamination as a result of PFC chemicals. If you have any questions, contact Rhon Jones, Rick Stratton, or Ryan Kral, lawyers in the Section. We often represent state and municipal governments in litigation of this type.