WASHINGTON – The U.S. House of Representatives passed a sweeping bill Friday to address a growing national pollution crisis involving chemicals linked to high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) produced by 3M, DuPont, Chemours and other manufacturers have been used for more than a half-century to make hundreds of products waterproof or heat- and stain-resistant.
More than 100 million Americans in 1,400 communities have been exposed to PFAS-tainted drinking water, according to a database run by Northeastern University’s Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute and the Environmental Working Group. PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in nature and because they accumulate in humans.
Supporters of the House bill characterized PFAS water and air pollution as one of the greatest environmental threats faced by Americans. They said the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) failed to meet deadlines on a February 2019 action plan to address the PFAS crisis, so Congress had to step in.
Critics of the bill said it usurped proper regulatory processes and scientific study and argued that the EPA should be given time to complete its action plan.
It is unclear whether the Republican-controlled Senate will take up the legislation.
The Trump administration promised to veto the measure should it pass the Senate. A White House memo called the bill a “litigation risk” that “set problematic precedents” and imposed “unwarranted costs” on the “public and private sectors.”
The PFAS Action Act passed 247-159 as 24 Republicans joined 223 Democrats in support. Twenty-four members did not vote. Minnesota’s delegation voted along party lines with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed. GOP congressmen Tom Emmer, Jim Hagedorn and Pete Stauber did not respond to requests to explain their opposition.
Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar said the legislation was necessary to address a lackluster federal response to the issue.
“PFAS contamination is a national epidemic,” Omar said in a statement to the Star Tribune. “It is also an equity issue in Minnesota. Active duty military, low-income families, communities of color, and Native populations are more likely to be exposed to PFAS. I’ve been alarmed by the lack of federal response and am proud that the House took action today.”
The House, Senate and the White House now find themselves at loggerheads over PFAS as public and private lawsuits claiming environmental and personal injuries mount. Documents collected in those lawsuits show that manufacturers such as 3M and DuPont continued to make and sell PFAS-related products despite warnings from their own scientists that the chemicals represented a potential threat to humans and animals. These include documents obtained by former Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson in a PFAS pollution suit against 3M that settled for $850 million in February 2018. In 2006, the EPA fined 3M $1.52 million for 244 violations of the Toxic Substances Control Act, including late reporting of “substantial risk information.”
3M said it has shared information about PFAS appropriately.
The House-approved bill would make the EPA declare two of the worst PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — hazardous substances. The agency would have five years to determine if it should designate all PFAS as hazardous. These measures could force manufacturers and users to help pay for cleanup under the nation’s Superfund law.
The bill also requires the EPA to set and enforce a maximum limit of PFOA and PFOS allowed in drinking water. Currently, no mandatory limit on any PFAS exists, despite the fact that EPA has issued warnings that PFAS may cause cancer, as well as liver, immune system, cholesterol and reproductive problems.
Other parts of the bill mandate testing of all PFAS and require companies to register PFAS production in a public toxic substances inventory. The legislation also restricts PFAS in the air and phases out use of PFAS-based firefighting foams on military bases, where the chemicals have exposed service members and their families, as well as surrounding civilian communities, to potential harm. It further orders the military to work with states and localities to clean up PFAS-polluted water systems, something the Department of Defense has been reluctant to do.
Though it discontinued production and use of PFOA and PFOS in 2002, 3M has testified under oath that the “majority of evidence does not indicate” that PFAS have hurt anyone at the level at which they exist in the environment.
Linda Birnbaum, who recently retired as director of the government’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, disputed 3M’s assessment. There is plenty of documentation of bad human health effects for PFOA and PFOS, Birnbaum said.
“We have multiple epidemiology investigations looking at different populations by different investigators reporting a variety of adverse health effects ranging from cancer to immune effects to hormonal effects to impacts on pregnancy,” she explained.
Several hours of floor debate preceded the vote. A bipartisan group of Michigan House members led the legislative charge. PFAS have had major effects on their constituents. Among other things, chemicals from a shoe factory polluted drinking water and chemicals from a shuttered Air Force base leached into groundwater and migrated into humans and animals.
“We wanted a strong bipartisan vote,” said Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan. “Republican support in the House tells the Senate that this matters to Republicans.”