“Forever Chemicals” Disposal Is Creating a Health Nightmare
New data compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) depicts a growing danger to public health and the environment from a vast, uncontrolled, and spreading web of unregulated disposal of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) waste.
EPA estimates there are more than 14,000 different PFAS, although only roughly 300 are currently being used in commerce. Human exposure to PFAS is associated with cancer, birth defects, developmental damage to infants, and impaired functioning of the liver, kidneys, and immune system. Because PFAS are highly persistent and many are highly mobile, PFAS in waste will often cycle back into the environment, where it will continue to poison the air we breathe and the water we drink.
The EPA’s data come from the agency’s PFAS Analytical Tools, which collects information from EPA’s electronic manifest system. The PFAS Analytical Tool has information on about 10,344 shipments of almost 27 million kilograms of waste contaminated with PFAS between June 2018 and June 2023. Common disposal methods for these PFAS wastes include incineration, landfilling, mixing with other fuels and burning it, discharging it into wastewater treatment systems, and injecting it underground.
The data, analyzed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), underscores the urgent need for EPA to regulate PFAS under the Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) Subtitle C. This provision of RCRA authorizes EPA to set regulatory standards for the management of hazardous waste from the moment the waste is generated until its final disposal (known as cradle-to-grave management). PEER petitioned EPA to regulate PFAS under RCRA Subtitle C on September 19, 2019, but has yet to receive a response from EPA. On January 15, 2020, on behalf of the Green Science Policy Institute and community groups nationwide whose drinking water is contaminated with PFAS, the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley also petitioned EPA to designate hundreds of known-dangerous PFAS chemicals as “hazardous waste,” and regulate them stringently from cradle to grave.
In October 2021, EPA said it intended to add four PFAS chemicals, PFOA, PFOA and PFBS, and GenX to the list of RCRA “hazardous constituents.”i As of November 8, 2023, EPA had not taken steps to implement this proposal. Listing the chemicals as hazardous constituents would trigger clean-up authority under RCRA’s “corrective action” program but would do nothing to prevent future contamination.
EPA’s recent approval of the importation of almost 4.4 million pounds of PFAS waste into the United States from the Netherlands for reclamation and disposal is further evidence of the need for EPA to set standards for PFAS waste management. EPA’s weak standards means the U.S. will be an attractive dumping ground for companies in other countries wanting to offload their PFAS waste. Given the serious public health and environmental risks associated with PFAS waste management, EPA should prohibit the importation of PFAS waste into the country.
Without “cradle-to-grave” management under RCRA Subtitle C, PFAS contamination will continue to grow, imposing tremendous financial, health, and environmental costs on society while allowing those who created the problem to avoid or minimize financial responsibility for the harm caused by this waste.
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