WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday said it will start work by the end of the year on a long-awaited plan to set national drinking-water limits for two harmful chemicals linked to cancer, low infant birth weight, and other health issues.
But environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers criticized the plan, saying it in effect delayed desperately needed regulation on a clear public health threat from chemicals that are commonly used in cookware, pizza boxes, stain repellents, and fire retardants.
EPA officials described their proposal as the “first-ever nationwide action plan” to address the health effects of human-made chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs. There are currently no federal regulations on the production or monitoring of that class of about 5,000 chemicals, which are manufactured and used in a wide variety of industries and products. Studies have shown that they can linger in the human body for years, causing harmful health effects.
“The PFAS action plan is the most comprehensive action plan for a chemical of concern ever undertaken by the agency,” said Dave Ross, EPA’s assistant administrator for water, in a telephone call with reporters Thursday. Andrew Wheeler, the EPA’s acting administrator, who is now President Trump’s nominee to head the agency, called the plan a “pivotal moment in the history of the agency.”
The American Chemistry Council, an industry lobbying group, voiced support for the plan. “We continue to support strong national leadership in addressing PFAS and firmly believe that EPA is best positioned to provide the public with a comprehensive strategy informed by a full understanding of the safety and benefits of different PFAS chemistries,” it said in a statement.
Critics called on the agency to move more quickly, citing 2016 action by the Obama administration on two of the chemicals that suggested the urgency of the risk.
“While EPA acts with the utmost urgency to repeal regulations, the agency ambles with complacency when it comes to taking real steps to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe,” said Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment Committee.
After a public outcry over tests showing dangerous levels of PFASs in communities around the United States, particularly around military bases and fire stations, the EPA under the Obama administration in 2016 proposed creating a national standard for limiting the levels in drinking water of two of the most prevalent varieties of PFAS chemicals, known as PFOA and PFOS.
It also issued a health advisory recommending that water utilities and public health officials monitor levels of the two chemicals in public water supplies and notify the public if the combined levels of those chemicals reached 70 parts per trillion. A draft report released last year by the Department of Health and Human Services recommended that the “minimal risk level” for exposure to those two chemicals should be less than half that amount.
Given the available data on the effect of PFAS chemicals, environmentalists criticized the EPA’s response as inadequate to the threat.
Scott Faber, an expert on chemical policy with the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, called it a “drinking water crisis facing millions of Americans.” But the EPA, he said, is “just not treating the crisis the way it deserves.”
In particular, critics of the EPA have sited the role of Nancy Beck, a former lobbyist with the American Chemistry Council, in a slowdown of the agency’s response to addressing PFASs.
But Wheeler did not offer a clear timeline of when such a standard might be completed. Such regulatory processes can often take years.