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U.S to crack down on toxic "forever chemicals" in drinking water

EPA climate fight
EPA climate fight 03:08

The Biden administration is launching a broad strategy to regulate toxic industrial compounds associated with serious health conditions that are used in products ranging from cookware to carpets and firefighting foams.

The Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a series of steps to limit pollution from long-lasting chemicals, known as PFAS, which are increasingly turning up in public drinking water systems, private wells and even food. 

The plan, announced by EPA head Michael Regan on Monday, is intended to restrict PFAS from being released into the environment, to accelerate cleanup of PFAS-contaminated sites such as military bases and to increase investments in research to learn more about where PFAS are found and how their spread can be prevented.

"This is a bold strategy that starts with immediate action" and includes additional steps "that will carry through this first term" of President Joe Biden, Regan told the Associated Press. "We're going to use every tool in our toolbox to restrict human exposure to these toxic chemicals."

PFAS, called "forever chemicals" because they last so long in the environment, have been associated with serious health conditions, including cancer and reduced birth weight.

Under the strategy, the EPA will move to set aggressive limits for PFAS in drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act and will require PFAS manufacturers to report on how toxic their products are. The agency also is moving to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under what's called Superfund law that allows the EPA to force companies responsible for the contamination to pay for the cleanup work or do it themselves.

Officials expect a proposed rule on PFAS in drinking water by 2023, Regan said. "We're going to move as quickly as possible to set these safe drinking water limits," he said.

The actions will make it easier for the EPA to ensure that cleanups are conducted safely and that "the polluter pays for that,″ Regan said.

Legislation has stalled

The regulatory strategy comes as Congress considers wide-ranging legislation to set a national drinking water standard for certain PFAS and clean up contaminated sites across the country, including military bases where high rates of PFAS have been discovered.

PFAS is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are used in nonstick frying pans, water-repellent sports gear, stain-resistant rugs and countless other consumer products. The chemical bonds are so strong that they don't degrade or do so only slowly in the environment and remain in a person's bloodstream indefinitely.

The Environmental Working Group, which advocates for stronger regulation of chemicals, has identified nearly 30,000 industrial sites nationwide that it says are using, or are suspected of using, PFAS.

"After more than two decades of delay, it's good news that EPA is finally starting to act. But we must move even faster to turn off the tap of PFAS pollution by industry," Scott Faber, the group's senior vice president for government affairs, said in a statement. "Communities living downwind and downstream of these polluters have waited decades for action."

Legislation passed by the House would set a national drinking water standard for PFAS and direct the EPA to develop discharge limits for a range of industries suspected of releasing PFAS into the water. The bill has stalled in the Senate.

While Regan welcomes congressional action, he said the EPA has authority to act on its own.

"You know, PFAS contamination has been devastating communities for decades now, even before we knew how dangerous these chemicals were," he told the AP.

A former North Carolina environmental regulator who took over as the EPA head in March, Regan said he saw firsthand in his home state how dangerous PFAS can be.

Michael Regan sworn in as EPA chief 00:41

As North Carolina's top environmental official, Regan led negotiations that resulted in the cleanup of the Cape Fear River, which has been dangerously contaminated by PFAS industrial compounds that were released for decades from a manufacturing plant run by a spinoff of chemical giant DuPont.

"I spent time with families in their communities, talking to them about the fears and worries that they had," said Regan, who announced the EPA actions Monday at a news conference in Raleigh. "I spent time talking to mothers who were concerned about potential long-term impacts to their children, caregivers who were wondering if terminal illnesses of their loved ones were connected" to the PFAS release from the Fayetteville Works plant.

"So there is a real sense of urgency," he added. "And in North Carolina, we moved forward. We followed the law and the science, and we held the polluter accountable."

Still, he said the state would have been in a stronger position "if the federal government would have been a better, stronger partner."

The EPA under his leadership has "done more in eight months" on PFAS than the previous administration did in four years, Regan told the AP.

Action on PFAS will not be done "on the backs of the American people," Regan added. "We are holding the polluters accountable, and we're using the full extent of our statutory authority to be sure that they pay for what they've done."

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