Some studies link the chemicals called PFAS to an increased risk of cancer, higher cholesterol, suppressed immune systems and problems in fetal development. In Washington, the state Board of Health is taking aim at a broader swath of PFAS chemicals than is the federal government.
The Environmental Protection Agency has released an “action plan” to tackle pollution from a class of chemicals that have found their way into drinking-water systems around the nation, including some in Washington state.
Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler called the plan, announced Thursday, an “historic moment for the agency and the American public.”
Some states, including Washington, are forging their own regulatory path to address PFAS pollution. Meanwhile, critics say the federal agency still is moving too slowly to address the health risks of a broad class of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — or PFAS — found in many products, including firefighting foams, food containers and carpets.
“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 U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware, where some water systems have been polluted by PFAS chemicals.
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Some studies link the substances to an increased risk of cancer, higher cholesterol, suppressed immune systems and problems in fetal development. A study analyzing serums, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, found traces of PFAS in 98 percent of the participants.
The EPA regulatory process is expected to result in new federal limits to two PFAS chemicals, replacing what are now advisory guidelines for the two substances that have made their way from firefighting foams to drinking-water supplies.
In Washington, the state Board of Health is taking aim at a broader swath of PFAS chemicals. In a rule-making process expected to be completed by January 2020, the board is expected to set action levels for up to six PFAS chemicals, according to Barbara Morrissey, a state Department of Health environmental toxicologist.
If a Washington drinking-water system tests above the action level for a chemical, the state would require that customers be notified and the operator conduct monitoring. The state then would work with the water-system operator to determine follow-up actions, which could include treatment or finding another water source, according to Mike Means, director of the Office of Drinking Water at the state Department of Health.
Currently in Washington, much of the pollution focus has been on two chemicals that migrated from foam used at firefighting training sites into wells and drinking-water systems.
The major areas of concern include some homeowner wells near Naval Air Station Whidbey Island that tested over the current EPA guidelines for the two chemicals, a water system at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and wells and at Airway Heights water system near Fairchild Air Force Base in Eastern Washington. The Defense Department has paid for bottled water and offered to pay for water-filtration systems.
Water-system operators have shut down wells that have tested above the EPA guidelines, and found other sources.
Washington also has taken action through the Legislature, which in 2018 largely banned the use and sale of firefighting foam containing PFAS. Another law bans PFAS in plant-fiber food packaging once the state Department of Ecology determines safer alternatives are available.
A bill now in the Legislature would allow the Department to Ecology to consider restrictions on PFAS in products such as sunscreen and carpets sold in Washington state.
Meanwhile, some states have set or are in the process of setting mandatory drinking-water limits for PFAS at lower levels than the current EPA guidelines.
“It’s the states that have been on the front lines of the contamination that really have been pro-active on this,” said Erika Schreder, science director of Toxic-Free Future, which has pushed for more agency regulation — and more laws — to address the health risk of PFAS chemicals in Washington.
Morrissey, the state health-department toxicologist, says the spread of PFAS pollution reflects weaknesses in current laws, which have allowed widespread use of these chemicals before full assessment of their risks.
“We are taking action after harm is already done,” Morrissey said.
The PFAS pollution also has spawned years of litigation, which currently includes lawsuits in Washington and elsewhere triggered by drinking-water pollution. This month, attorneys representing a Whidbey Island woman with a contaminated well filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the manufacturer 3M and fire-equipment companies.
The lawsuit, which the attorneys hope can become a class action, alleges the defendants knew about the toxicity and persistence of PFAS chemicals in the 1970s and did not disclose that information to the public.
The EPA plan announced Thursday will draw on staff from different parts of the agency. The plan includes evaluating cleanup approaches, helping states in enforcement, and developing new ways to communicate about PFAS.
“We owe it to the American public to be able to explain in very simple and easily understandable terms what are the risks they face in their daily lives,” Wheeler said.