Health

Congress Takes Steps to Regulate PFAS in Water

PFAS—short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—are used by manufacturers to make everything from nonstick cookware to stain-resistant fabric, and the compounds can seep into water from factories, landfills, and other sources. Because they don’t easily break down in the environment, they’re often called “forever chemicals,” and they’re linked to learning delays in children, cancer, and other health problems.

While the fate of the bill in the Senate is unclear, the timing of its passage in the House comes as more evidence has emerged of widespread PFAS contamination in the U.S. A new analysis published this week by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, found that PFAS has been detected in almost 2,800 communities, and previous estimates from the organization indicate that upward of 200 million people may be exposed to water contaminated by PFAS.

The legislation follows an investigation by Consumer Reports and the Guardian US news organization into the nation’s drinking water, which found measurable levels of PFAS in the vast majority of 120 water tap water samples taken around the U.S.

Lawmakers are also considering other bills that would limit the use of PFAS in food packaging and regulate the discharge of the chemicals into waterways by manufacturers.

“No one should have to worry about the safety of their water,” Scott Faber, the EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs, said in a statement. “Congress should send a clear signal to the EPA that we should turn off the tap of PFAS pollution and move swiftly to set a national PFAS drinking water standard.”

Brian Ronholm, CR’s director of food policy, agrees.

“PFAS contamination has grown at an alarming rate and poses a serious threat to public health,” Ronholm says. “We’ve known for decades that PFAS are toxic at very low doses, and yet the EPA has failed to take action to protect the public. This bill will help minimize harmful exposure to these dangerous chemicals by requiring strong standards to keep PFAS out of our air and water and facilitating cleanup of contaminated sites that pollute communities and endanger our health.”

The EPA also announced this month that it is weighing whether to manage PFAS as a class—in other words, one standard for all related compounds, an approach long championed by scientists and advocates. There are numerous known PFAS available for potential use by manufacturers.

“Protecting the public from PFAS by using a single chemical by chemical approach to evaluating safety has failed,” David Andrews, PhD, EWG senior scientist, tells CR. “With more than 1,000 chemicals in use, regulations are urgently needed that consider the exposure and toxicity of all PFAS compounds together.”

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