‘Forever chemical’ provisions in NDAA fall short, say advocates

Additional steps could include directing the EPA to regulate the chemicals under the Superfund program and the Safe Drinking Water Act

Michigan Democrat Rep. Elissa Slotkin urged further action to clean up the chemicals. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Michigan Democrat Rep. Elissa Slotkin urged further action to clean up the chemicals. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 9, 2020 at 4:42pm

The defense policy conference report the House adopted Tuesday night included steps to address a toxic set of chemicals linked to liver failure and cancer that are nearly ubiquitous in modern America and are building up in humans’ bloodstreams.

Defying a veto threat, House members voted 335-78 to adopt a final version of the legislation, which would authorize $731.6 billion. The Senate aims to take up the conference report this week. 

But the legislation stops short of wholesale steps to clean up the so-called forever chemicals, formally called per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, or PFAS, such as directing the EPA to regulate the chemicals under the Superfund program and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The House vote Tuesday marks the second time in two years that PFAS cleanup efforts have fallen short of sweeping changes through the defense bill, a setback for lawmakers and outside environmental and local advocates who want more aggressive changes.

[EPA move creates hurdles for future air, climate rules]

The chemicals, found in swaths of home and consumer goods, like clothing, cooking pans, packaging, furniture, carpets and snack wrappers, have been linked to health problems, including cancer, reproductive issues, immune problems and liver damage.

Bipartisan-backed language that would have ordered EPA to regulate PFAS chemicals at a national level was dropped from the annual defense policy bill last year, too. 

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., said Senate resistance kept out of the bill a measure that would have bound the Pentagon to follow PFAS clean-up standards in line with those in her home state of Michigan, which in July set some of the country’s toughest rules to limit the chemicals’ contamination of drinking water.

“I was disappointed that this PFAS provision didn’t survive, but this fight is not over,” Slotkin said. Slotkin urged the incoming Biden administration to prioritize PFAS cleanup in the military and other wings of the federal government.

“In the next Congress, I will be introducing a comprehensive PFAS agenda that brings together the range of policies we need to alleviate this harmful contamination in Michigan," she said.

Slotkin’s home state is among the hardest hit by PFAS contamination. Two Republicans — Reps. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., and Fred Upton, R-Mich. — joined Democrats in the House in an October letter to the EPA and the departments of Education and Health and Human Services, demanding higher standards for PFAS in school drinking water.

'Bipartisan issue'

“PFAS is perhaps the only environmental issue that really remains a truly bipartisan issue,” Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said by phone. “Not only does PFAS not distinguish between Republican and Democratic districts, it's building up in the blood of every American, especially service members and firefighters.”

Twenty-four Republicans also crossed the aisle in January to vote for a bill from Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., that would direct EPA to label PFAS as hazardous and require cleanup. The bill would have also prohibited the manufacturing or distribution of the chemicals for significant uses and directed the agency to establish a national drinking water regulation for PFAS.

Still, the House-passed defense bill does include some steps to tackle PFAS chemicals. It ends Defense Department procurement of certain home goods, such as cookware and carpets.

“That's significant because it builds on earlier efforts to reduce the needless exposures of PFAS to service members who are already disproportionately exposed,” Faber said.

The legislation moves to speed up plans to phase out aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, a PFAS-based spray to fight fires. It provides $15 million for a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on PFAS. And it requires the Defense secretary to alert agricultural operations close to areas where the chemicals have been detected in groundwater, according to a summary from Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee.

There are more than 700 military bases likely tainted with PFAS contamination, according to an EWG tally, and the organization says it has confirmed PFAS presence in the tap or groundwater at more than 300 military sites.

Some strains of PFAS may hamper the body’s response to vaccines.

An October study published by public health researchers at Harvard University found higher levels of PFAS in the bloodstream were linked to more severe COVID-19 infections.

Faber wishes the defense bill had included provisions to be tested for the chemicals.

“It’s frustrating that service members still won't be able to find out how much PFAS is in their blood, that active duty service members won’t be able to ask for a blood test as part of their physical,” Faber said.

Mary Grant of Food & Water Watch said in an interview that the defense measure falls short of a vital step in the eyes of environmental watchdogs.

“We want it to be regulated under Superfund law, which would prompt polluters to pay for contamination,” Grant said, adding that there is no enforceable federal standard on PFAS in drinking water.

“So states are moving towards setting up their own standards, or being more protective but at the federal level, there's only an advisory level,” Grant said. 

New York became the third state to ban PFAS chemicals in food packaging last week.