As a class of man-made chemicals that are toxic in even the smallest concentrations, PFAS have been used for decades to make products such as non-stick pans, stain-resistant carpets, and fire-fighting foam. The substances have been put to the test in recent years for their tendency to linger in the environment and accumulate in the human body, as well as for their links to health problems such as cancer and birth defects. Both Congress and the Biden administration have moved Better regulate PFAS that pollute the drinking water of up to 80 million Americans.
Industrial researchers have long been aware of their toxicity. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s when environmental attorney Rob Bilott sued Dupont for pollution from his Teflon plant in Parkersburg, W.Va., did the dangers of PFAS become common knowledge. In comparisons with the EPA in the mid-2000s, Dupont admitted that it knew the dangers of PFAS, and it and a handful of chemical manufacturers then committed to phasing out certain types of PFAS by 2015.
Kevin A. Schug, professor of analytical chemistry at the University of Texas at Arlington, said the chemicals identified in the FracFocus database fall into the PFAS liaison group, although he added that there wasn’t enough information to make a direct link between the chemicals in the database to those approved by the EPA. Still, he said it was clear “that if and when the approved polymer breaks down in the environment, it will break down into PFAS”.
The results underscore how for decades the country’s laws regulating various chemicals have brought thousands of substances into commercial use with relatively few tests. The EPA’s assessment was conducted under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which gives the agency the power to review and regulate new chemicals before they are manufactured or distributed.
But for years that law had loopholes that exposed Americans to harmful chemicals, experts say. In addition, the Toxic Substance Control Act went into Thousands of chemicals in commercial use, including many PFAS chemicals. In 2016, Congress tightened the law, including strengthening the EPA’s power to order health tests. The Government Accountability Office, the watchdog of Congress, still identifies the Toxic Substances Control Act as a program with one of the highest risks of abuse and mismanagement.
For the past few days, whistleblowers on Intercept have alleged that the EPA’s Toxic Chemicals Review office tampered with the ratings of dozens of chemicals to make them appear safer. EPA scientists evaluating new chemicals “are the last line of defense between harmful – even deadly – chemicals and their introduction into US commerce, and that line of defense is fighting to maintain their integrity,” said the whistleblowers in their disclosure published by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Maryland-based nonprofit group.