Why States Should Not Wait to Confront Toxic PFAS Chemicals

A family of toxic chemicals called PFAS are posing serious threats to wildlife and communities around the country. PFAS are hard to avoid—they are used in everything from clothing to carpets and baby products to bed linens.

Now the chemicals have been found in all parts of the environment, from soil, water, and air to fish and wildlife, and from the Great Lakes to the Arctic.

When the National Wildlife Federation released a report on toxic PFAS, a reporter asked (and I am paraphrasing): “State leaders here say that they are willing to act but are waiting to follow the lead of the federal government. Is this a good approach?”

My answer: “No.” Here’s why.

The PFAS crisis is already full-blown, posing a serious risk to wildlife, people, and communities.. In the Great Lakes region, for example, elevated levels of PFASs have been found in insect-eating birds such as tree swallows and fish-eating birds such as great blue herons, as well as bald eagles, fish, and deer—leading to fish consumption advisories and, in Michigan, a Do Not Eat advisory for deer in Iosco County, Mich.

Urgent action is needed. The question is: Who is going to step up and answer the call? States are in a position to act now.

PFAS are toxic, persistent, and bioaccumulative

PFAS are a dangerous set of chemicals.They are toxic to humans and wildlife at concentrations measured in parts per trillion. PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoralkyl substances, are everywhere—wherever we look for them, we find them. PFAS are present in food packaging, water repellent material in clothing and furniture, firefighting foams, and cleaning products. 

Because of strong chemical bonds, PFAS are persistent and do not easily break down. PFAS bioaccumulate and can remain in the body for years. And that is exactly what is happening: PFAS are being detected in drinking water—and in people—in communities across the country.

Federal action is not enough: states must act too

States have the responsibility to act to protect their citizens from this grave public health threat. Thankfully, states do not need to wait for the federal government to act first. States have the legal tools to set PFAS standards for surface, ground, and public drinking water that would protect people and wildlife.

The recent PFAS measures enacted into law demonstrate that while the federal government has a role to play, federal action alone is not enough. The President recently signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which contains a number of helpful provisions that address PFAS. Certain provisions constitute actions on PFAS that only the federal government can take. For example, since the presence of PFAS in firefighting foams means that there is PFAS pollution at various military sites, Congress is requiring that the Department of Defense do more when it comes to cleanup. Also, based on the Toxic Substances Control Act, Congress has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to finalize a rule that will limit the use of various long-chain PFAS. 

Though the final NDAA bill failed to include broader PFAS provisions, the House will vote this week on the PFAS Action Act, which takes steps to create PFAS limits in drinking water and facilitate PFAS cleanup by designating two types of PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances. These actions would create a floor of protection for states to rely on while deciding whether to do more at the state-level. Unfortunately, the Senate is not guaranteed to act on the bill even if the House passes it. 

Even if EPA were to decide – however unlikely – to set standards, with the Trump Administration, is that what we want? Under President Trump, the U.S. EPA has repealed the Clean Water Rule and has rolled back many other environmental protections. States who wait for this administration’s EPA to protect our water will likely wait a long time and end up with inadequate protections.

States have the tools to get PFAS out of water sources 

Many federal environmental laws are designed to allow states to implement them. States have the authority to act today to set limits on PFAS pollution.

To keep PFAS out of lakes and streams, states can use their Clean Water Act authority to set limits on how much PFAS is allowable in surface water. To make sure that public drinking water is safe, states can use their Safe Drinking Water Act authority to set limits on how much PFAS can be in the water a water system sends to its users. To protect private water well users, states can use their cleanup laws to designate certain PFAS as hazardous and to limit how much PFAS can be present in groundwater that becomes well water. 

The bottom line is that there is absolutely no reason for states to delay acting to protect the health of the people in their states. They have tools and need to use them.

Action on PFAS must achieve equity

When states act on PFAS, they have a responsibility to act to help the most vulnerable communities—those communities that have historically borne the brunt of environmental degradation and pollution. PFAS is seemingly ubiquitous and affects many communities. However, the impacts to vulnerable communities—minority or socioeconomically disadvantaged communities—are greater because they often lack financial resources to address pollution problems.

For example, states should prioritize vulnerable communities when distributing funds for upgrading systems that monitoring drinking water and sewage treatment plans. When groups contemplate incineration of PFAS waste as a method of disposal, they must consider what the addition of new air pollutants will do to vulnerable communities that likely already have high levels of air pollution.

States must act quickly before the problem becomes too large to manage

Some states, like Michigan, have looked for PFAS, found it, acknowledged that it is a major problem, and established some clean water protections. Michigan already has surface water and groundwater limits for PFOS and PFOA (two forms of PFAS). Michigan is also on the verge of proposing public drinking water limits for five PFAS. There is more to do, but Michigan is a good example of a state that is taking the issue seriously.

There are other states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New York that are looking for PFAS and finding it, but still in the process of establishing standards and permitting protocols. This is promising.

Then there are states like Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. They do not appear to have any PFAS standards, and it is not clear the extent to which they have looked for PFAS. However, given the wide use of PFAS and its persistence, it would be a miracle if PFAS were not present in various parts of those states.

Given what we know about PFAS, these and other states have a responsibility to look for PFAS aggressively and to immediately commence the process to set standards and permitting protocols. Thankfully given that other Great Lakes states, and states like Vermont and New Jersey, have already gathered information and set certain standards, no state needs to reinvent the wheel: They can collaborate and exchange information.

There’s a lot of work needs to be done. There is a role for federal and state action. Given the current state of affairs, it’s incumbent on states to take the lead. There is every reason to act now, and no reason to delay. Delay will only make the problem worse and more costly.

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