Concern over PFAS is growing as more is found in our soil, water, and blood. New bills in the US senate propose new regulations on PFAS. A Senate bill looks to ban it in food packaging; the EPA recently proposed new drinking water regulations. As the push to label PFAS chemicals as hazardous gains momentum, the question is how will this effect Oregon?
The Eternal Chemical
PFAS, the “forever chemical,” are compounds that are extremely stable and do not break down. Grease- and water-repellent, PFAS is used to coat nonstick products like food packaging and cookware, leading to its widespread use. But poor industry management practices led to PFAS leaking into the environment, contaminating soil and water. As PFAS doesn’t decay, the chemicals linger, and end up in the blood of people and animals. Recent studies have shown a wide variety of health risks, including cancers, associated with PFAS exposure. Because of these health risks, environmental regulation agencies have started focusing on PFAS regulation. For the average person, the primary exposure to PFAS is through drinking water.
The Clean Water Act
The 1972 Clean Water Act empowers the Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA) to protect “the waters of the United States.” The 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act furthers those protections by focusing on drinking water. The EPA sets the standards for water but leaves the enforcement of those standards to state and tribal governments. This allows for the flexibility to adapt these standards to the specific needs for an area and a community. For example, the EPA does not include groundwater in “waters of the United States,” unless there is a hydrogeological connection from “navigable” waters to groundwater. However, Oregon includes groundwater in its definition of “waters of the state.” Therefore, the state has regulations for groundwater pollution that go beyond the EPA’s standards.
New EPA Regulations for PFAS
On March 14th, the Biden Administration proposed new drinking water standards focusing on six PFAS compounds. This is part of greater PFAS regulation, including designating two PFAS compounds are hazardous substances and preventing PFAS discharge into waterways. One-third of Americans get their drinking water from groundwater, potentially expanding the federal definition of “waters of the state” and the EPA’s reach. But how would this effect Oregon?
Oregon and Groundwater Regulation
While a 2013-2015 study showed Oregon does not have PFAS in its drinking water, the state remains concerned about future contamination. In Oregon, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) enforces environmental regulations, including the Clean Water Drinking Act. Of particular importance is groundwater pollution, as most Oregonians get their drinking water from groundwater sources. In 2021, the DEQ started a drinking water monitoring program to assess the levels of PFAS, and implemented a pollution plan requirement when a certain level of PFAS is found in wastewater. This puts Oregon ahead of the curve when it comes to the EPA’s proposed standards. Indeed, Oregon’s current standards are a preview of potential future national standards.
Impact on Industry
From packaging to clothing, PFAS-coated products fill up landfills. In landfills, there is high potential for PFAS to further leech out into soil and groundwater. Likewise, industrial workers have an even higher exposure to PFAS. Private individuals have also started suing manufacturers for PFAS pollution, in particular carpet manufacturers. In fact, carpet disposed of in landfills are massive lechers of PFAS into soil and groundwater. By working to prevent PFAS contamination now, penalties can be avoided, and business can prevent future headaches. As a bonus, businesses and industry will be helping the environment and overall health of others.
As more research is done, the problem of PFAS will only grow, and more regulations to follow. It’s vital for industry to stay on top of PFAS control.
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