A recent congressional hearing included calls for Washington to take a deeper look at microplastics in the environment and in drinking water, as well as potentially including it on lists of emerging contaminants for the monitor.
The October 6 U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee hearing focused more intently on other chemicals in drinking water, such as fluorinated compounds like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances like PFOS, than it did on plastics.
But lawmakers including Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., quizzed witnesses on how the government should think about microplastics, water quality and human health.
Elise Granek, a plastics health researcher and environmental science professor at Portland State University, told Cohen and other members of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment that she favored federal standards governing the amount of microplastics in water and food.
"I think that we need regulations on the release of microplastics into waterways and benchmarks for what is safe in drinking water and perhaps in food," Granek said. "We have regulations of levels of mercury that are safe in fish, but we have no benchmarks on levels of plastics that are safe for consumption."
The committee wasn't looking at any plastics-specific legislation but was hearing calls for more attention in general to what are called contaminants of emerging concern (CECs).
The 2020 defense budget legislation directed the federal government to set up a national research initiative on CECs, and some witnesses urged Congress to build on that.
A former Environmental Protection Agency official, Elizabeth Southerland, told the committee that Washington doesn't have any coordinated program to identify CECs but said lawmakers should tell the EPA and other agencies to develop a priority list and be more proactive.
"We are suffering with a reactive system that waits for a public health or environmental crisis to occur before we begin monitoring and considering controls," said Elizabeth Southerland, formerly director of EPA's Office of Science and Technology in its water division.
She said CECs can include pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, pesticides and microplastics, as well as natural substances like algal toxins.
Microplastics are a new regulatory area for environmental and public health agencies, but California last year became the first state in the U.S. and possibly the first government in the world to formally launch a rule-making that may set standards for microplastics in drinking water.