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EPA warns toxic ‘forever chemicals’ more dangerous than once thought

In this still image provided by Ethereal Films, Brenda Hampton was tearful as she observed a man grieving in a children's section of East Lawrence Memorial Gardens, in Lawrence County, Ala., in June 2021. Hampton, a mother and grandmother, believed tainted water led to her kidney problems and found that PFAS seemed to be in everything, including fast food packaging. Concerned that her children were ingesting the chemicals as they ate french fries and burgers, she joined the fight to get it banned from McDonald's.Elijah Yetter-Bowman/Associated Press

The Environmental Protection Agency warned Wednesday that a group of human-made chemicals found in the drinking water, cosmetics, and food packaging used by millions of Americans pose a greater danger to human health than regulators previously thought.

The new health advisories for a ubiquitous class of compounds known as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, underscore the risk facing dozens of communities across the country. Linked to infertility, thyroid problems, and several types of cancer, these “forever chemicals” can persist in the environment for years without breaking down.

"People on the front-lines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long," EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. "That's why EPA is taking aggressive action."

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The guidance aims to prompt local officials to install water filters or at least notify residents of contamination. But for now, the federal government does not regulate the chemicals. Health advocates have called on the Biden administration to act more quickly to address what officials from both parties describe as a contamination crisis that has touched every state.

"Today's announcement should set off alarm bells for consumers and regulators," said Melanie Benesh, legislative attorney at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization. "These proposed advisory levels demonstrate that we must move much faster to dramatically reduce exposures to these toxic chemicals."

Since the 1940s, chemical makers have used the highly durable compounds to make nonstick cookware, moisture-repellent fabrics, and flame-retardant equipment. But that same toughness against water and fire that made the chemicals profitable allowed them to accumulate in nature and build up in the body - with long-term health impacts.

Agency officials assessed two of the most common ones, known as PFOA and PFOS, in recent human health studies and announced Wednesday that lifetime exposure at even the most minuscule levels of 0.004 and 0.02 parts per trillion, respectively, can compromise the immune and cardiovascular systems and are linked to decreased birth weights.

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Those drinking-water concentrations represent "really sharp reductions" from previous health advisories set at 70 parts per trillion in 2016, said Erik Olson, a senior strategic director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. The announcement, he added, sends "an important signal to get this stuff out of our drinking water."

More significantly, the EPA is preparing to propose mandatory standards for the two chemicals this fall. Once finalized, water utilities will face penalties if they neglect to meet them. The advisories will remain in place until the rule comes out. The EPA also said Wednesday it is offering $1 billion in grants to states and tribes through the bipartisan infrastructure law to address drinking-water contamination.

Yet already in the United States, manufacturers have largely replaced PFOA and PFOS with other fluorinated compounds. The EPA determined that two of those alternatives - dubbed GenX and PFBS - are also dangerous to ingest even at relatively low levels, according to a review of recent research on mice.

Among the communities hit hardest with contamination are those near military bases, where PFAS-laden foams were used for decades to fight jet-fuel fires.

Many residents in Oscoda, Mich., for instance, have heeded warnings from state health officials and stopped drinking untreated well water and eating deer hunted near the now-shuttered Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

"There still is no plan in place for the cleanup," said Anthony Spaniola, an attorney and co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network whose family has a lakeside home in Oscoda. "The Department of Defense, quite frankly, has mismanaged this site, bordering on reckless."

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Spaniola hopes the new health advisories mean the military will "change the scope of what they need to clean up."

In North Carolina, Emily Donovan's family of four started carrying around bottled water and installed a filter under their sink after PFAS were discovered in and around Cape Fear River. Instead of asking parents to donate cookies and cupcakes, schools request bottles of water for dances and other events.

"It's a layer of stress that we all live with now," said Donovan, now an activist who co-founded Clean Cape Fear and is on the leadership team of the National PFAS Contamination Coalition.

"You're constantly wondering," she added, "is there something inside of me? Is there something inside of my children?"

Regan, who served as North Carolina's top environmental official before joining the EPA, ordered the chemical company Chemours to stop the compounds from trickling into the river.

While the agency is planning to regulate two PFAS, thousands of distinct compounds have been discovered. Many health advocates say federal regulators need to crack down on the compounds as a group.

"We can't continue this whack-a-mole approach to regulating them," Olson said. "We'll never be finished in anyone's lifetime."

Radhika Fox, who heads the Office of Water at the EPA, said the agency is considering more sweeping regulations of the class of compounds. “We are exploring options to propose a rule that is for groups, not just PFOA and PFOS,” she told reporters Tuesday in a Zoom call.

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