States Lead the Way in Regulating Certain PFAS Due to Lack of Action at the Federal Level

Posted on November 4, 2020 by

Per- and polyflourinated substances (PFAS) can be found just about everywhere these days. Some of the first products that used PFAS were non-stick cookware.  PFAS can now be found in such items as clothes and shoes, carpets, couches, food wrappers, fire fighting foam and so much more. It also is found in our air, soil, and water. There are nearly 5,000 PFAS chemicals, some more widely studied and understood than others. 

For decades corporations that invented and used the chemicals in products hid documents and results showing the dangers of PFAS to humans and its persistence in the environment- it is known as the forever chemical because it does not break down in the environment. PFAS is a highly toxic man-made chemical that binds to blood plasma proteins, circulating through each organ in the body. According to the CDC 99% of Americans already have PFOA in our blood. PFOA and PFOS are two highly toxic chemicals and two of the chemicals more widely studied and understood in the PFAS family. This toxic family of chemicals can cause birth defects, reproductive and immune system problems, liver and thyroid disease, and cancer. 

The Environmental Working Group estimates that nearly 110 million Americans’ drinking water is contaminated with PFAS. Unfortunately there are no federal water quality standards restricting how much PFAS can be in our sources of water and our tap water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a 70 ppt lifetime limit health advisory, which is like 70 grains of sand in an Olympic-size pool. This health advisory does not take into the full body burden from being exposed to PFAS through items like food wrappers, scotchguard, other items, and drinking water. 

In 2019, the U.S. EPA rolled out its PFAS Action Plan. One of the action items in the plan included establishing a drinking water maximum contamination level (MCL) or drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS. This has yet to occur and as a result of the lack of action by the federal government, some states are developing their own water quality standards. Majority of the Great Lakes States have set standards more stringent than the U.S. EPA’s public health advisory of 70 ppt. Minnesota and Michigan go even further in setting standards for multiple PFAS chemicals. Canada has set their own standards as well, but these standards are much higher than even the U.S. EPA’s public health advisory. At the end of the day though, each Great Lakes state has the ability to set their own standards and some have failed to set standards, opting for the U.S. EPA’s public health advisory.

PFAS, however, should be regulated as a single-class which could reduce health risks and contamination, and improve clean-up efforts. The current approach of managing PFAS chemicals one-by-one has failed to control the widespread exposures, has led to insufficient public health protection, and is not cost-effective. Managing and regulating PFAS as a single-class of chemicals will, among other things, prohibit manufacturers from substituting a well-known PFAS chemical with a lesser-known PFAS chemical but equally as hazardous to the environment and humans. 


Author: Kristy Meyer, Freshwater Future, Director of Policy


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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.