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EPA Wants to Remove Cancer-Linked Chemicals From Drinking Water, One Day, Maybe

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A number of common items—from certain pots and pans to your fast food wrapper—get their non-stick properties from synthetics substances that may increase a person’s risk of cancer. This group of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively called PFAS, lack stringent federal regulation, but in 2016, the EPA made it a priority to change that.

On Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency finally announced a plan to better monitor PFAS production and end PFAS contamination across communities in the U.S. The problem is that it is barely a plan at all.


As critics point out, the plan does nothing beyond drag out the process to better regulate PFAS and clean up the communities that are potentially experiencing impacts due to high levels of the chemicals in their water. According to the CDC, those impacts may include low infant birth weight, obesity, hormone disruption, and cancer. Critics note that the new plan doesn’t propose any new drinking water standards and say it offers a way-too-flexible timeline for short-term and long-term actions.

The action plan suggests first issuing a proposal to determine whether to even regulate PFAS. Once that happens—and if the EPA does decide PFAS deserve a federal regulation like a maximum contaminant level, which is what the agency appears to be leaning toward—that proposal could take years to become law. It’s similar to the agency’s lead action plan, which also lacked any actual plans.


“It’s going to allow a lot of delays in the cleanup, and that’s a public health threat,” said Betsy Southerland, who served as the director of science and technology at the EPA’s Office of Water’s under Obama, to Earther.

Currently, the drinking water health advisory for this group of chemicals is 70 parts per trillion, but some states have lower or higher guidelines. The agency has been working to update these standards and issue specific regulations on the chemicals since last year, when former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was still at the helm. Under his oversight, the agency came under fire for attempting to bury a study that suggested dropping those guidelines to 12 parts per trillion.

Critics worry that the EPA under President Donald Trump will allow states to continue setting their own public health advisory guidelines, which not only complicates cleanup for federal agencies like the Department of Defense that face PFAS contamination on military bases, but also allows for state leaders who have industry interests in mind to offer weaker protections for their constituents.


“In the end, [states] may not make the best choice and protect the most sensitive person,” Southerland told Earther. “It’s abnegating all the responsibility by the EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

Reached for comment, the EPA told Earther it is not trying to delay regulating PFAS. Spokesperson John Konkus said the agency is committed to following the proper rulemaking process to establish a maximum contaminant level, which “is designed to ensure public participation, transparency, and the use of the best available science and other technical information.” The agency was quick to note that the Trump administration is “the first ... to address PFAS in a comprehensive and meaningful way.”


Only time will tell what actually results from this action plan, which, despite being weak as hell, is one of the more positive moves the EPA has taken under Trump. However, critics are quick to note that while the agency is taking its time to issue protections on the American public, the EPA has been quick to strip the public of protections from other health threats, especially pollutants from the oil and gas industry.

“While EPA acts with the utmost urgency to repeal regulations, the agency ambles with complacency when it comes to taking real steps to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe,” said Delaware Senator Tom Carper to the New York Times.


States like Michigan and Pennsylvania are dealing with the threat of PFAS contamination today. They don’t have years to waste waiting for a solution.

Update 2/14/19 2:37 pm ET: This post has been updated to include a comment from the EPA.