Washington — Calling it a "national priority," Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt told a Washington conference May 22 that EPA will develop tougher regulations around chemicals widely used in making fluoropolymers and other products.
The chemicals, which are also used in firefighting foams, upholstery, carpets and paper food packaging for their non-stick characteristics and process stability, have drawn widespread concern in recent years after turning up in drinking water supplies, sometimes at levels linked to health risks.
More than 200 state government officials and representatives of environmental groups gathered at the invitation-only EPA forum, billed as a "National Leadership Summit" on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, to talk about how to proceed.
"This should be and must be a national priority, and ... we are going to be taking concrete steps as an agency to address that, along with you at the state and local level," Pruitt said.
The announcement of new policies, though, was partly overshadowed by complaints from community groups in various states not invited to the summit and by coverage of three reporters denied entry, including an Associated Press journalist reportedly pushed out of the building. EPA officials later apologized to AP, according to press reports.
Inside the summit, in a morning session that was broadcast online, Pruitt and other agency officials said EPA plans to develop a national management plan for PFAS chemicals this year.
Pruitt said EPA will also take steps to declare PFAS and a related chemical, PFOA, as hazardous substances under Superfund cleanup laws, and evaluate setting a maximum contaminant level for drinking water.
State officials pushed for regulatory changes that could directly impact industry. The head of Ohio's EPA called on the federal EPA to make companies give more information on how they use the chemicals.
"Currently state regulators lack basic information about the manufacture, use and purchase of many PFAS, let alone their chemical characteristics and potential hazards," said Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler. "Most importantly manufacturers should provide relevant information about location of PFAS manufacturing facilities and their primary uses and purchases of products."
Butler, who gave an opening address on behalf of the Environmental Council of States (ECOS), noted Ohio faced problems 15 years ago with similar chemicals that leaked from a DuPont Co. fluoropolymer factory in Parkersburg, W. Va., and into nearby communities in both states.
"These PFAS compounds we're now discussing present very difficult challenges and they're very pervasive and persistent in the environment," Butler said. "They can and may cause health impacts at very low levels and are compounds used in a vast array of compounds for consumer use."
He said ECOS wants the federal government to take a leadership role and support state action, and he called for debate on setting a safe level in drinking water.
EPA in 2016 set an advisory safe level of 70 parts per trillion in drinking water, but that's proven controversial.
In a May 21 letter, ECOS noted "confusion" and differing opinions between states on the issue. As well, EPA has come under criticism from members of Congress in recent weeks for not releasing a government study that reportedly recommends much tougher safety standards.
Butler and others acknowledged the regulatory issues will be complex, in part because the chemicals provide benefits in many products — like fluoropolymers used in medical devices, cars and electronics — and because there are many different chemicals, with widely different risk factors, under the broad umbrella of PFAS materials.
Jessica Bowman, senior director of global fluoro-chemistry at the American Chemistry Council, said in a conference speech that many of the environmental problems stem from so-called "legacy" long-chain versions of the perfluorinated chemicals that were used in the past but have been phased out in recent years in the U.S., Europe and Japan.
They've been replaced in those places by short-chain versions that are more environmentally friendly, Bowman said: "Today's PFAS are generally short chains and they have significantly improved hazard profiles compared to the legacy products."
But one state environmental official from New Hampshire, in an afternoon session not broadcast, reportedly told the meeting that it's not clear if the new substitutes are any safer in drinking water.
That's according to the twitter feed of one of only a handful of reporters allowed into the meeting, Garret Ellison, an environment reporter for the Grand Rapids Press in Michigan.
ACC also called for restrictions during the summit on imports of PFAS products from countries that still use long chain manufacturing processes, including China.
"Imported products treated with long chains continue to make their way to the U.S. and will continue to do so in the absence of regulation," Bowman said.