Health · June 16, 2022

“Forever chemicals” in water and packaging can pose health risks, says the EPA

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The Environmental Protection Agency warns that two non-stick and stain-resistant compounds in drinking water are more dangerous than previously thought — and pose health risks even at concentrations so low that they can’t currently be detected.

The two compounds, known as PFOA and PFOS, have been voluntarily phased out by US manufacturers, but there are a limited number of ongoing uses and the chemicals remain in the environment because they don’t break down over time. The compounds are part of a larger cluster of “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, which have been used in consumer products and industry since the 1940s.

The EPA on Wednesday issued non-binding health advisories that set health risk thresholds for PFOA and PFOS to near zero, replacing 2016 guidelines that they had set at 70 parts per trillion. The chemicals can be found in cardboard packaging, carpets and extinguishing foam, among other things.

A Burger King Whopper in a wrapper, left rear, and a bag of Burger King cookies, left, rest next to a McDonald's Big Mac in a container, right rear, and a bag of McDonald's fries, in Walpole, Mass., Wednesday, May 20. April 2022. Environmental and health groups are urging dozens of fast-food companies, supermarket chains and other retail outlets to remove PFAS from their packaging.

A Burger King Whopper in a wrapper, left rear, and a bag of Burger King cookies, left, rest next to a McDonald’s Big Mac in a container, right rear, and a bag of McDonald’s fries, in Walpole, Mass., Wednesday, May 20. April 2022. Environmental and health groups are urging dozens of fast-food companies, supermarket chains and other retail outlets to remove PFAS from their packaging.
(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

At the same time, the agency is asking states and territories to seek $1 billion under the new bipartisan infrastructure bill to tackle PFAS and other contaminants in drinking water. The money can be used for technical assistance, water quality testing, contractor training and the installation of a central treatment, officials said.

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Several states have set their own drinking water limits to address PFAS contamination that are far more stringent than federal guidelines. The toxic industrial compounds are linked to serious health problems, including cancer and reduced birth weight.

“People on the front lines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “Therefore, as part of a whole-of-government approach, the EPA is taking aggressive action to prevent these chemicals from entering the environment and to protect affected families from this ever-present challenge.”

PFAS is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances used in non-stick frying pans, water-repellent sports equipment, stain-resistant carpets, cosmetics and countless other consumer products. The chemical bonds are so strong that they are not broken down in the environment or only broken down slowly and remain in the blood indefinitely.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan speaks at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University on April 14, 2022 in Greensboro, NC.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan speaks at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, NC on April 14, 2022.
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The revised health guidelines are based on new scientific evidence and take into account lifetime exposure to the chemicals, according to the EPA. Officials are no longer confident that the PFAS levels allowed under the 2016 guidelines “have no adverse health effects,” an EPA spokesman said.

While the new guidelines set an acceptable risk below currently measurable levels, as a practical matter, the EPA recommends that utility companies take action on the chemicals when they reach measurable levels — currently about four parts per trillion, a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday night .

The EPA said it expects to propose national drinking water regulations for PFOA and PFOS later this year, with a final rule expected in 2023.

In a related development, the EPA announced that for the first time it is issuing definitive health advice for two chemicals considered surrogates for PFOA and PFOS. One group is known as GenX chemicals while the other is known as PFBS. Health warnings for GenX chemicals have been set at 10 parts per trillion, while PFBS has been set at 2,000 parts per trillion.

The agency said the new recommendations provide technical information that federal, state and local agencies can use to inform measures to control PFAS in drinking water, including monitoring water quality, using filters and other technologies that reduce PFAS reduce, and strategies to reduce exposure to the substances.

Environmental and health groups welcomed the announcement as a good first step. Advocates have long urged action on PFAS after thousands of communities discovered PFAS chemicals in their water. PFAS chemicals have been confirmed at nearly 400 military installations, and at least 200 million Americans drink water contaminated with PFAS, according to the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization.

“The EPA had the courage to follow the science. This is a step in the right direction,” said Stel Bailey, co-facilitator of the National PFAS Contamination Coalition.

“The science is clear: these chemicals are frighteningly toxic at extremely low doses,” added Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He called on the EPA to regulate all PFAS chemicals with enforceable standards as a single class of chemicals.”

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Melanie Benesh, attorney for the Environmental Working Group, said the EPA’s announcement “should set off alarm bells for consumers and regulators alike.” She urged the EPA to “move much faster to drastically reduce exposure to these toxic chemicals.”

The American Chemistry Council, which represents large chemical companies, said in a statement that while it supports the development of drinking water standards for PFAS based on the best available science, the EPA’s announcement “reflects a failure by the agency to ensure its accepted practice.” to adhere to the scientific integrity of his process.”

While the recommendations are non-binding, “they will have far-reaching policy implications at the state and federal levels,” the group said. methods can be reliably detected.

The Chemours Co., a DuPont spinoff that uses GenX chemicals to make high-performance fluoropolymers used in semiconductors, cell phones, hospital ventilators and other products, called the EPA’s announcement “fundamentally flawed.”

The EPA on Wednesday issued non-binding health advisories that set health risk thresholds for PFOA and PFOS to near zero, replacing 2016 guidelines that they had set at 70 parts per trillion.

The EPA on Wednesday issued non-binding health advisories that set health risk thresholds for PFOA and PFOS to near zero, replacing 2016 guidelines that they had set at 70 parts per trillion.
(AP)

The EPA “disregarded relevant data and issued a health advisory that contradicted the agency’s own standards and this government’s commitment to scientific integrity,” Chemours said in a statement.

The company “already employs state-of-the-art technology at our sites to reduce emissions and address historic releases,” Chemours said, adding that officials are evaluating next steps, “including possible legal action,” to address the scientifically unsound actions of the to tackle EPA.”

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A North Carolina state investigation found that Chemours had discharged GenX into the Cape Fear River from its Fayetteville Works facility for years. EPA Chief Regan was the state’s top environmental official when the investigation began and was leading negotiations that resulted in a river cleanup.

Gov. Roy Cooper and his current environmental chief last week unveiled a three-pronged strategy addressing continued efforts to reduce and eliminate a broad category of PFAS chemicals in water sources.

Legislation passed by the House of Representatives would establish a national drinking water standard for PFAS and direct the EPA to develop discharge limits for a number of industries suspected of releasing PFAS into water. The bill has stalled in the Senate.