EPA Proposes New Superfund Designation of 'Forever Chemicals'

    If finalized, it could make PFAS polluters pay for cleanup

    Water bottle, fast food packaging, smoke stack, frying pan Photo Illustration: Consumer Reports, Getty Images

    The Environmental Protection Agency announced a new proposal on Friday to designate two of the most widely used per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as “Superfund.”

    This step follows an announcement from the EPA in June, lowering the allowable limits of four types of PFAS in drinking water. But that was an advisory, not an enforcement. If finalized, this new “Superfund” designation would institute reporting requirements for businesses that pollute the environment with PFAS and give the EPA tools to collect cleanup costs from those businesses as well.

    More on PFAS

    “This rulemaking would increase transparency around releases of these harmful chemicals and help to hold polluters accountable for cleaning up their contamination,” says Melissa Sullivan in the EPA’s Office of Public Affairs. “When finalized, it will strengthen EPA’s ability to clean up sites contaminated with PFOA and PFOS and to hold polluters—such as those who have manufactured and released significant amounts of PFOA and PFOS into the environment—responsible for the contamination they caused, rather than taxpayers.”

    The approximately 5,000 compounds that fall under the PFAS category are often called “forever chemicals” because they don’t naturally break down; rather, they accumulate over time in both the environment and the human body. Hundreds of them are commonly used to make nonstick cookware, water- and stain-resistant clothing and rugs, and other household products. Studies have linked PFAS to serious health problems like cancer, weakened immune systems, and reproductive and developmental harm.

    Consumer Reports has previously tested a wide range of common products for PFAS, and consistently found them—in bottled water, in tap water, and in fast-food wrappers and bowls. When CR tested packaging from more than 100 restaurants and grocery chains, for instance, we found PFAS in some packaging from every single retailer, including some that claimed to have phased them out. One CR writer even tested his own blood, and his cat’s, and found PFAS in both.

    CR’s food safety experts say PFAS should be banned in all food packaging. Following CR’s investigation, several restaurant chains, including Burger King and Chik-fil-A, publicly pledged to phase out PFAS from their packaging. CR has also urged the EPA and Congress to enact stricter regulation of PFAS pollution.

    “This designation is a historic step that will finally hold polluters accountable for their actions,” says Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at CR. “It will help facilitate the cleanup process in so many communities that have been impacted by PFAS, especially in environmental justice communities that are often disproportionately exposed to chemical contaminant pollution.”

    The EPA is also seeking public comment on potentially designating additional PFAS as hazardous substances, aside from the two chemicals included in this announcement. CR experts support this expansion.

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    Lauren Kirchner

    I’m an investigative reporter on CR’s Special Projects team, covering product safety. I’ve previously reported on algorithmic bias, criminal justice, and housing for The Markup and ProPublica. My reporting aims to expose and explain how decisions made by corporations and governments can have wide-reaching and often unintended consequences. Send me tips at lauren.kirchner@consumer.org and on Twitter at @lkirchner, or ask for my Signal number.