The EPA says this plan is a broad roadmap of goals for protecting people from exposure to the huge class of likely toxic PFAS chemicals.
These industrial chemicals were used for decades to make non-stick, waterproof and stain-resistant coatings, as well as firefighting foams and other industrial products. PFAS chemicals can be spread from these products through air, water, soil and dust. They can take years or decades to break down in the environment and human bodies.
Numerous studies have linked PFAS exposure to serious health problems – including kidney and liver impairment, developmental and reproductive issues, immune deficiencies, high cholesterol and some cancers.
The new plan is the EPA’s first holistic step toward regulating the chemicals. It’s meant to provide guidance and clarity for states, municipalities and affected communities, but it does not contain any immediate changes to the law.
Officials contend that the plan means the agency will propose new drinking water limits this year on two of the most common and well-studied PFAS chemicals – PFOA and PFOS.
But the wording of the plan itself only says the agency will “propose a national drinking water regulatory determination” for those chemicals this year. Many advocates worry that could let the EPA decline to set those limits later on.
The agency’s plan also says it will complete toxicity assessments this year for newer, still-active forms of PFAS known as GenX. And they’ll draft similar assessments for five more PFAS chemicals in 2020.
Many older PFAS chemicals have been phased out of U.S. manufacturing, but they can still present in imports and older goods. Some research suggests GenX chemicals may be toxic too.
The plan also says the agency is already working on listing PFOA and PFOS chemicals as official Superfund site hazards. That could trigger more clean-up at contaminated sites, and financial settlements with polluters.
But the plan's overall lack of many concrete steps or big commitments disappointed advocates like Laurene Allen of Merrimack. She was at the EPA's New England PFAS press conference in Massachusetts Thursday.
"We are in dire need of more than guidance,” she told Alexandra Dunn, the former head of the EPA in New England who was just confirmed as chief of the agency’s national chemical safety office.
Dunn says this plan is just the beginning of more action that could someday include considering regulating PFAS as a class, instead of individually, and studying how firefighters may be exposed to PFAS through their protective gear, among other routes.
But those steps would take years to materialize, and there are no guarantees they will.
“What I would encourage you to do is just to continue bringing your case forward,” Dunn told advocates. “I know it is a tireless effort, and that response can seem extremely delayed.”
That wasn’t enough for advocates like Kristen Mello of Westfield, Massachusetts, which is dealing with PFAS water contamination from past military activities.
“While we appreciate the work that went into this document, and the future actions it promises, today's announcement changes nothing for PFAS victims in Westfield,” Mello says in a statement provided by the National PFAS Contamination Coalition.
New Hampshire’s Congressional delegation also said they feel the plan falls short.
“Parents should not have to worry about whether the water they are giving their children is safe,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan in a statement. “The EPA must stop dragging its feet on giving our communities the guidance they need.”
And Brad Campbell, president of the Boston-based advocacy group Conservation Law Foundation, calls the plan “an empty promise of future steps.”
“EPA is misleading the public about this health threat and hobbling efforts by states and municipalities to hold polluters accountable for community and residential water systems that have been contaminated,” he says in a statement.
The EPA’s plan also says the PFAS will again be included in the agency’s unregulated contaminant monitoring program. In 2016, that program found levels of PFAS above the EPA’s non-binding health advisory of 70 parts per trillion in 1.3 percent of the nation's public water systems.
Elevated levels of the chemicals have been found in the drinking water of two communities in New Hampshire, and many more across New England.
This report comes from the New England News Collaborative: Eight public media companies, including The Public's Radio, coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.