Congress Takes Steps to Regulate PFAS in Water

The House passed the PFAS Action Act, as other PFAS legislation remains pending

Person filling glass with water from the kitchen tap. Photo: iStock

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a bill that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to swiftly enact limits on some PFAS chemicals in drinking water and declare them hazardous substances, a move that could allow for the cleanup of contaminated sites across the country.

The bill’s passage in the House follows an announcement this week by President Joe Biden’s administration, which publicly threw its support behind the legislation, known as the PFAS Action Act. It now moves to the U.S. Senate for consideration.

More on PFAS

PFAS—short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—are used by manufacturers to make everything from nonstick cookware to stain-resistant fabric, and the compounds can seep into water from factories, landfills, and other sources. Because they don’t easily break down in the environment, they’re often called “forever chemicals,” and they’re linked to learning delays in children, cancer, and other health problems.

While the fate of the bill in the Senate is unclear, the timing of its passage in the House comes as more evidence has emerged of widespread PFAS contamination in the U.S. A new analysis published this week by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, found that PFAS has been detected in almost 2,800 communities, and previous estimates from the organization indicate that upward of 200 million people may be exposed to water contaminated by PFAS.

The legislation follows an investigation by Consumer Reports and the Guardian US news organization into the nation’s drinking water, which found measurable levels of PFAS in the vast majority of 120 water tap water samples taken around the U.S.

Lawmakers are also considering other bills that would limit the use of PFAS in food packaging and regulate the discharge of the chemicals into waterways by manufacturers.

“No one should have to worry about the safety of their water,” Scott Faber, the EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs, said in a statement. “Congress should send a clear signal to the EPA that we should turn off the tap of PFAS pollution and move swiftly to set a national PFAS drinking water standard.”

Brian Ronholm, CR’s director of food policy, agrees.

“PFAS contamination has grown at an alarming rate and poses a serious threat to public health,” Ronholm says. “We’ve known for decades that PFAS are toxic at very low doses, and yet the EPA has failed to take action to protect the public. This bill will help minimize harmful exposure to these dangerous chemicals by requiring strong standards to keep PFAS out of our air and water and facilitating cleanup of contaminated sites that pollute communities and endanger our health.”

The EPA also announced this month that it is weighing whether to manage PFAS as a class—in other words, one standard for all related compounds, an approach long championed by scientists and advocates. There are numerous known PFAS available for potential use by manufacturers.

“Protecting the public from PFAS by using a single chemical by chemical approach to evaluating safety has failed,” David Andrews, PhD, EWG senior scientist, tells CR. “With more than 1,000 chemicals in use, regulations are urgently needed that consider the exposure and toxicity of all PFAS compounds together.”

What the Bill Would Do

One of the most significant aspects of the PFAS Action Act would require the EPA to establish national drinking water standards within two years for PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, and PFOS, or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, two well-studied PFAS compounds.

The EPA’s process to set limits for PFOA and PFOS is underway, but the traditional regulatory process would take several years to complete. Currently, the agency has a voluntary guidance level at 70 parts per trillion combined for both compounds.

Many public health experts think those levels are far too high, with some recommending limits of just 1 ppt for total PFAS

CR’s chief scientific officer, James Dickerson, PhD, agrees that when it comes to PFAS, “the lower the better.” CR’s scientists say the maximum allowed amount should be 5 ppt for a single PFAS chemical and 10 ppt for two or more. 

The legislation would also define PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances within one year, which would force cleanup of known contaminated sites to begin, and require the EPA to determine whether to list other PFAS within five years. Discharge limits on industrial releases of PFAS would be set, too, and $200 million would be provided annually for wastewater treatment. 

The two chemicals would also be designated as hazardous air pollutants within 180 days. Comprehensive PFAS health testing would be required, and it would also create a voluntary label for PFAS in cookware.

Managing As a Class?

Earlier this month, the EPA heeded to calls by advocates and scientists to manage the chemicals as a class, announcing that it would consider potential regulation for PFAS.

In a July 12 statement, the agency released a list of drinking water contaminants that it considers a priority. Under federal law, the EPA must release what’s called a Contaminant Candidate List every five years that covers currently unregulated contaminants that may require regulation. The agency’s inclusion of PFAS as a class was a surprise to some advocates.

The agency is seeking comments on the draft list, and it expects to publish the new list next year. Though inclusion on the list doesn’t immediately impose any new regulations, the EPA says adding all PFAS for consideration of potential limits is part of its “commitment to better understand and ultimately reduce the potential risks caused by PFAS.”

“It’s a positive development that the EPA is thinking about this and acknowledging the problem,” Ronholm says. “It remains to be seen whether this starts the agency toward a path that results in meaningful regulatory action.”


Head shot of Ryan Felton, a CR author of investigative reports and special projects

Ryan Felton

I'm an investigative journalist with an appetite to cover anything and everything. My job and goal is to dig into complicated issues that affect people's health, safety, and bottom line. I've covered everything from dangerous tires to subprime lending to corporate malfeasance. Got a tip? Drop me an email ( ryan.felton@consumer.org), or follow me on Twitter ( @ryanfelton) for my contact info on Signal.