A bill to establish federal regulations for a group of harmful chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday with bipartisan support.
The legislation, which passed the House with 247 votes, would require the EPA to establish drinking water regulations for two common types of PFAS, classify PFAS chemicals as a hazardous substance and hold polluters responsible for cleanup, limit the use of firefighting foam that contains the chemicals, and provide funding to monitor for contamination.
PFAS, which are used in consumer and industrial applications to make products water-, oil-, and stain-resistant, have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, and pregnancy complications. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that built an interactive map of PFAS contamination sites, estimates that 110 million people in the U.S. are drinking contaminated water.
“They’re called ‘forever chemicals’ because they stay in the environment,” says Phil Brown, director of Northeastern’s Social Science Environmental Health Institute, who studies the impacts of PFAS on human health and the environment, and how communities, advocates, and lawmakers have responded to growing concerns about the chemicals.
“They get recycled into the food we eat and the milk we drink and the dust that we breathe, and there’s no end to how long they’re going to stay around. We’ll be constantly re-exposed to them,” says Brown, University Distinguished Professor of sociology and health sciences at Northeastern.
The White House has already said it intends to veto the bill if it is approved by the Senate. The administration’s statement, issued on Tuesday, said that the legislation would circumvent existing regulatory procedures and undermine public confidence in the Environmental Protection Agency.
Brown dismissed the Trump administration’s argument that the legislation would bypass the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act as “just not true.”
Brown also says that the EPA’s anti-regulatory stance and hostility toward environmental protection has already undermined public confidence in the agency.
Many of the provisions in the new legislation were originally included in the National Defense Authorization Act, because a lot of PFAS contamination is centered around military sites, Brown says. But they were cut out before that bill was passed by the Senate.
“Even though, in some cases, the military has been responsive, if you put this into the NDAA and you highlight lots of military sites, whether they be airports or dumps on bases, that is pointing to the government’s responsibility,” Brown says. “And the government doesn’t like to do that.”
But even if nothing gets done about PFAS at the federal level, Brown says, many states are taking steps to regulate the chemicals. State-level legislation, combined with consumer pressure, has been effective in controlling harmful substances in the past.
Brown cites the case of flame retardants, which are used in foam cushions for furniture and baby products and have been linked to developmental disorders and a variety of other health problems.
“The federal government did very little on flame retardants, and they never passed any regulatory levels,” Brown says. But many state legislatures have.
“Those state bans were super important,” Brown says. “And that’s the same thing we’re seeing now with the PFAS. The states are doing all the work.”