EPA announces plans to regulate cancer-causing 'forever chemicals'

The three-year roadmap would drastically strengthen existing recommendations from previous administrations.

Drew Angerer via Getty Images

Showing up in everything from cosmetics and dental floss to product packaging and cleaning supplies. polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are ubiquitous to the modern world. They're also known as "forever chemicals" as they do not break down in nature. What's more, they've been linked to a host of human diseases, from thyroid conditions to certain cancers, which is why, in 2016, the Obama administration enacted a unenforceable recommendation limiting the amount of PFAS in a given product should not exceed 70 parts per trillion. On Monday, the Biden administration announced that it will give Obama's recommendation some teeth.

“This is a really bold set of actions for a big problem,” EPA administrator Michael Regan told The Washington Post. “This strategy really lays out a series of concrete and ambitious actions to protect people. There are concrete steps that we are taking that move this issue forward in a very aggressive way.”

The EPA unveiled its 3-year roadmap towards regulating the class of chemicals on Monday centers on a trio of approaches: "increase investments in research, leverage authorities to take action now to restrict PFAS chemicals from being released into the environment, and accelerate the cleanup of PFAS contamination," according to the EPA. To that end, the administration plans to set enforceable drinking water limits under the Safe Drinking Water Act, designate PFAS as a hazardous substance under CERCLA (which would hold manufacturers financially liable for incinerating the chemical or releasing it into waterways), set timelines for establishing effluent guideline limitations under the Clean Water Act, review rules and guidance under the Toxic Substances Control Act, and expand monitoring, data collection and research of the chemicals. Additionally, the agency announced a new national testing strategy that will require PFAS manufacturers to provide toxicity data on the chemicals they create.

“Communities contaminated by these toxic forever chemicals have waited decades for action,” Ken Cook, President of the Environmental Working Group, said in a press statement. “So, it’s good news that Administrator Regan will fulfill President Biden’s pledge to take quick action to reduce PFOA and PFOS in tap water, to restrict industrial releases of PFAS into the air and water, and to designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances to hold polluters accountable. It’s been more than 20 years since EPA and EWG first learned that these toxic forever chemicals were building up in our blood and increasing our likelihood of cancer and other health harms. It’s time for action, not more plans, and that’s what this Administrator will deliver."

A handful of states including New Jersey, Vermont, Michigan, and New York, have already moved to regulate the chemicals on their own — California banned their use in baby and toddler products earlier this year — while the EU has banned many of the chemicals outright. The US Navy has announced that it will ban PFAS from its firefighting foam by October, 2023, as directed by Congress.