Audit, Compliance and Risk Blog

US Government rolls out comprehensive approach to PFAS “forever chemicals”

Posted by Jon Elliott on Mon, Nov 08, 2021


On October 18, the federal government announced comprehensive plans to design and implement protections against perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – often referred to as “forever chemicals.” PFAS have been manufactured and used since the 1940s and are now found in many environmental settings, and most Americans’ blood. These plans were rolled out through statements by President Biden and longer pronouncements by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Defense, Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Health and Human Services.

The remainder of this note provides basic information about PFAS, and EPA’s new “PFAS Strategic Roadmap: EPA’s Commitments to Action 2021-2024.”

What are PFAS and their hazards?

PFAS are a large family of manufactured chemicals containing compounds of carbon and fluorine. Over the decades, PFAS compounds have been used to make non-stick pans, fire-resistant clothing and materials, and fire suppression foams. Because carbon-fluorine bonds are particularly strong, these chemicals do not degrade in the environment – the National institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) notes that scientists are unable to estimate an environmental half-life for PFAS, which would be the time it would take for half the chemicals to disappear. Because of their widespread use for many years, and less-than-complete waste management, contamination is widespread; NIEHS cites a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finding PFAS in the blood of 97% of Americans. NIEHS also notes that these materials bioaccumulate, leading to rising concentrations in humans and other living things. Research identifies adverse health outcomes, including altered metabolism, reduced fertility and fetal growth, increased risk of being overweight or obese, and reduced ability of the immune system to fight infections.

How is EPA enhancing its response to PFAS?

  • What actions has EPA already undertaken in 2021?

Since the beginning of the Biden administration, EPA has expanded its regulatory and scientific attention to PFAS. Actions include:

    • In February, EPA re-proposed its Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 5) and reissued final regulatory determinations for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), both under the Safe Drinking Water Act

    • In April, EPA announced expanded review of new PFAS proposed for distribution in the US, announced new final Human Health Toxicity Values for Perfluorobutane Sulfonic Acid Potassium Perfluorobutane Sulfonate (PFBS), and established a new advisory council on PFAS

    • In June, EPA proposed a rule to require all manufacturers (including importers) of PFAS in any year since 2011 to give EPA a wide range of data

    • In July, EPA released the first set of preliminary data for PFAS ever collected under the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) (I most recently wrote about TRI HERE )

    • In August, EPA released a draft assessment of the human health hazards of PFBS for public comment and external peer review

    • In October, EPA announced that it is developing a national PFAS testing strategy using its Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) authorities to require PFAS manufacturers to provide information

  • What does EPA’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap promise?

The Roadmap presents a comprehensive agency approach to PFAS, assembling EPA’s authority under several laws. Elements include:

    • General approaches

      • Consider the lifecycle of PFAS, including contributions to releases and persistence in the environment and organisms

      • “Get upstream of the problem” by considering source reduction and substitution

      • Hold polluters accountable

      • Ensure science-based decision-making

      • Prioritize protection of disadvantaged communities

    • Research – “Invest in research, development, and innovation to increase understanding of PFAS exposures and toxicities, human health and ecological effects, and effective interventions that incorporate the best available science”, with objectives to

      • “Build the evidence base on individual PFAS and define categories of PFAS to establish toxicity values and methods.

      • Increase scientific understanding on the universe of PFAS, sources of environmental contamination, exposure pathways, and human health and ecological effects.

      • Expand research on current and emerging PFAS treatment, remediation, destruction, disposal, and control technologies.

      • Conduct research to understand how PFAS contribute to the cumulative burden of pollution in communities with environmental justice concerns.”

    • Restrict – “Pursue a comprehensive approach to proactively prevent PFAS from entering air, land, and water at levels that can adversely impact human health and the environment”, with objectives to

      • “Use and harmonize actions under all available statutory authorities to control and prevent PFAS contamination and minimize exposure to PFAS during consumer and industrial uses.

      • Place responsibility for limiting exposures and addressing hazards of PFAS on manufacturers, processors, distributors, importers, industrial and other significant users, dischargers, and treatment and disposal facilities.

      • Establish voluntary programs to reduce PFAS use and release.

      • Prevent or minimize PFAS discharges and emissions in all communities, regardless of income, race, or language barriers.”

    • Remediate – “Broaden and accelerate the cleanup of PFAS contamination to protect human health and ecological systems”, with objectives to

      • Harmonize actions under all available statutory authorities to address PFAS contamination to protect people, communities, and the environment.

      • Maximize responsible party performance and funding for investigations and cleanup of PFAS contamination.

      • Help ensure that communities impacted by PFAS receive resources and assistance to address contamination, regardless of income, race, or language barriers.

      • Accelerate the deployment of treatment, remediation, destruction, disposal, and mitigation technologies for PFAS, and ensure that disposal and destruction activities do not create new pollution problems in communities with environmental justice concerns.

The bulk of the Roadmap sets out regulatory and informational initiatives, exercising EPA’s authority under TSCA, SDWA, TRI, Clean Water Act, Superfund (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)), and Clean Air Act.

What’s next?

Since January, the Biden administration has greatly expanded its attention to PFAS risks and management. The October 18 announcements, including EPA’s PFAS Roadmap, organize these efforts into comprehensive programs to be undertaken cooperatively by a variety of federal agencies. Taken together, implementation of these initiatives would lead to additional restrictions on continuing uses of PFAS and greatly increased attention to environmental and organism contamination from past uses. Just after publishing its Roadmap, EPA responded on October 26 to a petition from New Mexico with commitments to initiate two rulemakings under its Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) authority: one to propose adding PFAS and several specific examples as "hazardous constituents" subject to RCRA review; and a second to re-emphasize that the agency can use its RCRA authority to order cleanups of hazardous wastes (i.e., such as PFAS).

Self-evaluation checklist

Does or has the organization manufactured or imported materials containing or made with PFAS?

Does or has the organization used materials containing or made with PFAS?

Has the organization identified any PFAS contamination at any of its facilities, or down-gradient and related to its PFAS-related activities?

Has the organization evaluated alternatives to any present use of PFAS?

Has the organization evaluated its potential liabilities from any past or present use of PFAS?

Where can I go for more information?

 - PFAS website

 - PFAS Strategic Roadmap 

 - 10/26/21 response to New Mexico regarding PFAS issues

Like What You've Read? Subscribe to Our Blog Now

About the Author

Jon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 30 years. 

Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).

Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).

You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at:

Tags: EPA, Environment, PFAS, NIEHS