By Erik D. Olson and Katie Hobbs, Natural Resources Defense Council
Congress has made good on a promise to return to the work they started in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act: tackling the PFAS crisis. On Friday, the House of Representatives voted to pass the PFAS Action Act (H.R. 535) with overwhelming bi-partisan support (247-159), with 24 Republicans voting in favor of the bill.
Sponsored by Rep. Debbie Dingell, the PFAS Action Act takes significant steps towards addressing PFAS contamination across the country that threatens the public health of Americans everywhere. While more remains to be done, this legislation moves us ahead in this battle, and would particularly be helpful in starting the cleanup of ongoing contamination at hundreds of sites across the country.
As we have discussed previously, PFAS chemicals, commonly referred to as toxic “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment, have been linked to adverse health outcomes including cancers, liver and kidney damage, developmental and reproductive harm and immune system toxicity. PFAS also accumulate and stick around in human bodies. They are found in the blood of virtually all people. They are especially harmful to pregnant mothers and their fetuses, infants, and young children.
PFAS are a class of over 4,700 chemicals that have been widely used in consumer products for decades. They are present in items such as food packaging, carpets, apparel and cosmetics. The persistence of PFAS and their lack of regulation has allowed these dangerous chemicals to seep into our air, water and soil.
The House recognized the urgency of acting to protect Americans. It kickstarted action to address PFAS contamination in December when it formally recognized that the Department of Defense is a significant contributor of nationwide PFAS contamination (with known or suspected DoD contamination at over 400 sites), and successfully included numerous provisions in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), such as phasing out the use of DOD PFAS-containing firefighting foams. It also added a significant number of PFAS to the Toxic Release Inventory and Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule system to help better inform Americans when PFAS are being released into the environment and where contamination exists.
Despite these environmental wins, the scale and extent of the PFAS crisis warrant further action. Building off the work started in last year’s NDAA, the PFAS Action Act takes some important additional steps to make the public safer. H.R. 535 begins addressing industrial scale contamination by adding several of the most notorious PFAS chemicals under Superfund law and helping reduce pollution in drinking water systems, surface water, groundwater and soil with increased grant funding and regulation.
The PFAS Action Act would also establish some air pollution protections, including restrictions on incineration of PFAS waste and application of Clean Air Act air toxics rules to two PFAS (it also would require EPA to make determinations as to whether to regulate additional members of the class under the clean air law). Additionally, the bill includes Clean Water Act restrictions on certain industrial discharges of PFAS into surface waters or wastewater treatment plants and would authorize an EPA-verified consumer-friendly label for products such as carpets, rugs, cookware, and clothing that are PFAS-free. The bill also requires EPA to better explain what risks PFAS pose to the public and share which technologies can help remove PFAS from drinking water. Finally, the bill recognizes the increased exposure risks of PFAS contamination that firefighters and first responders face by establishing guidance on minimizing the use of PFAS and identifying viable alternatives to equipment containing PFAS.
While the bill takes many important steps, more action is needed—for example, most existing uses of PFAS remain lawful and are not subject to any restrictions or phase-out under the House-passed bill, and most members of the PFAS class of more than 4,700 chemicals may or may not be regulated under the legislation (only a fraction of the PFAS class are named and subject to most of its mandatory requirements; others would have to be added if EPA makes certain findings).
Still, the passage of the PFAS Action Act is a significant win for all Americans and demonstrates that Congress understands the urgency needed to tackle this public health crisis. House leaders including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, the bill’s lead sponsor Debbie Dingell, and many other key members of the House who sponsored amendments and the underlying legislation deserve credit and thanks for moving this important legislation forward and shining a light on this critical issue.