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PFAS Action Act of 2021: An overview

The child examines the water with a magnifying glass in a glass. Selective focus. Kid.
TATEVOSIAN YANA/yanadjan - stock.adobe.com
Child examines water with a magnifying glass.

Last week, the U.S. House passed a major bill that would initiate a federal crackdown on PFAS substances. But what does the “PFAS Action Act of 2021'' entail? And what’s the outlook on it becoming law? WHQR’s Hannah Breisinger and Ben Schachtman break it down.

BS: OK Hannah, let’s talk PFAS. First, give us a refresher on what these forever chemicals actually are.

HB: Sure thing. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of man-made chemicals. Specific types of PFAS include compounds like PFOA, PFOS, and GenX.

What makes these chemicals significant is that they’re resistant to water and lipids. So they’ve been used for consumer products in the U.S. since the 1940s and can be found in non-stick cookware, food packaging, weatherproof clothing, and stain repellents, among other products.

BS: But we’re starting to learn more about the impacts of these chemicals now.

HB: We are. Or, researchers are. I just mentioned that PFAS are resistant to water and lipids, which makes these chemicals useful for specific consumer products. But PFAS chemicals are so resistant that they can pose threats to humans and our environment. They don’t break down easily, so these chemicals can accumulate over time — in our waterways, like the Cape Fear River, and in our bodies.

Related: Special Report: Three years of GenX, PFAS, and Chemours

BS: And what do we know about the impacts of these chemicals on humans?

HB: So there’s a lot that remains to be discovered regarding the full long-term effects of PFAS exposure. But so far, researchers have found links between PFAS exposure and low infant birth weights, effects on the immune system, cancer, and thyroid hormone disruption.

BS: So, the federal government is considering taking action and there’s a bill in congress. What would it do?

HB: Yes, it’s called H.R. 2467, or the “PFAS Action Act of 2021.” As it stands in the House, the bill would give the Environmental Protection Agency, or the EPA, one year to designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances.

Then, within five years, the EPA would have to determine whether remaining PFAS compounds should be classified as hazardous substances, as well as toxic pollutants under the Clean Water Act. And that second scenario could establish standards limiting industrial PFAS contamination into water.

There’s more: the EPA would also issue a national primary drinking water regulation for PFAS, test all PFAS for toxicity to human health, and would regulate the disposal of materials containing PFAS. And the bill would allocate funding to help community water systems treat contaminated water.

BS: So now that H.R. 2467 has passed the House, what’s the outlook?

HB: The legislation would still have to undergo committee approval, debate, and a vote in the Senate to become law. And there’s currently no version of the measure in the chamber. There is however a smaller bill — called the PFAS Act — currently in review by a Senate committee. That act would aim to protect firefighters and other emergency response personnel from exposure to PFAS in firefighting foam.

BS: Can we expect a version of this bill to reach a floor vote in the Senate though? The very similar PFAS Action Act of 2019 bill also passed the House in 2020, but never made it out of a Senate Committee.

HB: That’s correct. This latest bill, as well as the other one that you just mentioned, both saw some bipartisan support in the House. But the bill has still seen pushback from GOP lawmakers, much more so than Democrats. 218 Democrats voted for the House bill for example, and 23 Republicans joined them. But 183 Republicans voted against it.

Congressman Debbie Lesko of Arizona took to Twitter to explain her opposition to the act, which she says goes too far:

Of course, the U.S. Senate is now under a Democratic majority, which could mean stronger support. But that majority is narrow, and it remains to be seen whether or not the chamber would have the GOP support needed to pass a version of the House bill.

BS: But if a final version is eventually agreed upon by both chambers, President Joe Biden would be given the opportunity to make the final call.

HB: Yes. And based on the Biden administration’s Statement of Administrative Policy, the President plans to sign the bill if it does, in fact, reach his desk.

BS: Thanks so much, Hannah.

HB: Happy to be here!

Hannah is WHQR's All Things Considered host, and also reports on science, the environment, and climate change. She enjoys loud music, documentaries, and stargazing; and is the proud mother of three cats, a dog, and many, many houseplants. Contact her via email at hbreisinger@whqr.org, or on Twitter @hbreisinger.
Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.