Federal Government Takes Action on PFAS ‘Forever Chemicals’

These widely used substances can be found in air, soil, water, and our bodies

Water dripping from a faucet Photo: László Sashalmi/Getty Images

The federal government announced a plan on October 18 to take action on a ubiquitous and currently lightly regulated class of chemicals that have been associated with a wide range of potential health risks. The roadmap, published by the Environmental Protection Agency, is designed to reduce human exposure to these chemicals, known as PFAS. 

There are approximately 5,000 PFAS—short for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances—with hundreds currently used to make nonstick cookware, water- and stain-resistant fabric, fire-fighting foam, and more. These chemicals are sometimes referred to as forever chemicals because they don’t naturally break down over time but just accumulate in the environment and in our bodies. And they can be hazardous to human health, according to a growing body of scientific research. Some of the better studied PFAS chemicals have been linked to certain cancers, weakened immune system response, decreased fertility, and other health issues.

The production, use, and disposal of products containing PFAS means that these chemicals can be found in water, soil, and the air. One study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found PFAS in the blood of 97 percent of people tested. Yet there is currently limited or no toxicity data available for a large number of PFAS.

The EPA roadmap lays out a series of steps the agency plans to take to help address widespread PFAS contamination. These include plans to:

  • Require PFAS manufacturers to conduct toxicity studies on a number of their products, with testing ordered by the end of this year
  • Set enforceable limits for levels of certain PFAS in drinking water by the fall of 2023
  • Review past EPA regulatory decisions on PFAS chemicals
  • More closely review the use of new PFAS
  • Publish toxicity assessments for commonly used PFAS known to affect human health
  • Designate certain PFAS as hazardous chemicals
  • Launch a number of initiatives to further study PFAS risks
More on PFAS

Experts say that if the agency follows through with these first steps, it could have a significant impact.

“It’s too early to determine how much of an impact this roadmap will ultimately have,” says Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports. “A lot of that will depend on the kind of details they reveal as part of it and how committed they are in maintaining the timelines.”

EPA action on PFAS is critical, Ronholm says, because the agency sets drinking water standards. Previous reporting by Consumer Reports has shown that both tap and bottled water are widely contaminated with PFAS.

The agency plans to use the new data on PFAS toxicity and its review of past action to identify the best strategies to limit Americans’ exposure to these chemicals.

“After more than two decades of delay, it’s good news that EPA is finally starting to act,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, in a statement. “But we must move even faster to turn off the tap of PFAS pollution by industry.”

Get 'Forever Chemicals' Out of Our Water

97 percent of Americans have measurable amounts of PFAS in their blood. Tell your Senators to limit #PFAS contamination in drinking water and protect our health and safety.

While EPA action is important, more is needed from other agencies, according to Ronholm and the EWG.

Research has shown that PFAS can be found in some food packaging, where it helps prevent grease from seeping through wrappings. Seven states have banned the use of PFAS in food packaging, but the FDA should more broadly limit its use, says Ronholm. In November, Senator Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) introduced a bill that would ban the use of PFAS in food containers.

Other agencies, including the Department of Defense and Federal Aviation Administration, need to do more to stop the use of PFAS in firefighting foams and to clean up contaminated sites, says EWG.

In the meantime, consumers can limit their exposure to PFAS in water and take steps to reduce their risks, including cooking more at home.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated to include information on new PFAS-related legislation.

Head shot image of CRO Health editor Kevin Loria

Kevin Loria

I'm a science journalist who writes about health for Consumer Reports. I'm interested in finding the ways that people can transform their health for the better and in calling out the systems, companies, and policies that expose patients to unnecessary harm. As a dad, I spend most of my free time trying to keep up with a toddler, but I also enjoy exploring the outdoors whenever possible. Follow me on Twitter (@kevloria).