WASHINGTON – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency validated new testing methods Thursday to measure the presence of widespread contaminates called PFAS in the nation's drinking water.
PFAS, an acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been linked to liver, reproductive, cholesterol and immune issues in humans, as well as cancer in lab animals. The EPA has issued a lifetime health advisory on the amounts of two specific kinds of PFAS in drinking water. But it has not set mandatory limits for any of thousands of different variations of the chemicals.
The new testing protocol will expand the number of PFAS measured in drinking water to 29, up from 18.
In a news release, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler called the expansion an "important scientific advancement."
PFAS are known as "forever chemicals" because they don't break down in nature and build up in humans exposed to them.
Maplewood-based 3M and other major PFAS producers and users, including DuPont and Chemours, face a slew of public lawsuits stemming from PFAS fouling drinking water, surface water and soil. Private personal-injury actions are being considered, as well as shareholder lawsuits brought by stock owners who say companies ignored their own research that showed PFAS were potentially dangerous.
Though it discontinued production and use of two types of PFAS in 2002, 3M has testified under oath that the "majority of evidence does not indicate" that PFAS have not hurt anyone at the level at which they exist in the environment.
PFAS are used to make products resistant to heat, stains and water. Teflon and 3M's Scotchgard product contain PFAS.
The EPA heretofore focused virtually all its attention on two PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — as it sought to deal with a water pollution scandal that now affects more than 100 million Americans.
The PFAS industry, including 3M, wants each variety of PFAS tested individually before placing restrictions on its presence in the water supply. The industry also endorses much higher allowances for PFAS in drinking water than the EPA recommends.
Because PFAS is used in firefighting foams that have polluted water systems on and around military bases, some members of the House and Senate tried to have all PFAS designated hazardous as part of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). But the hazardous label that would have pushed PFAS into Superfund status for cleanup was stripped from a conference committee bill. So was a provision that would have required the measurement of PFAS in drinking water.
An education campaign by health advocates such as the Environmental Working Group and the new feature film "Dark Waters," based on a PFAS pollution case, aim to raise public awareness of the problem.
"This new detection method, in combination with new monitoring and reporting requirements in the NDAA, will significantly expand our ability to understand the full scope of the PFAS contamination crisis," said Scott Faber, the Environmental Working Group's vice president for government affairs. "But knowing your water is polluted or who polluted it is small comfort. What Americans really want is clean water."