A ‘forever chemical’ surprise awaits Biden’s EPA

PFAS contamination may be larger than previously understood after recent discovery

A plane spraying mosquito pesticide. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A plane spraying mosquito pesticide. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Posted January 15, 2021 at 4:13pm

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to address so-called forever chemicals that have been found in Americans’ drinking water and linked to many adverse health effects.

But the scope of the contamination may be larger than previously understood given the EPA finding this week that such compounds have been leaching from storage containers into at least one pesticide used to control disease-spreading mosquitoes.

The manufacturer of the pesticide has voluntarily halted shipments of product in such containers, but it’s unclear how many other companies are using similar ones.

“It’s still not known how broadly these are used elsewhere,” said David Andrews, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, an anti-pollution advocacy organization. “This does seem to be a significant concern and may point to yet another reason why these compounds are found in nearly everyone’s blood in the United States.”

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, or PFAS, are used in the manufacturing of many common household products and have been linked to serious health problems including cancer. They are prized by manufacturers because they take so long to break down — hence the term “forever chemicals.”

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The EPA said it became aware of the pesticide contamination last year from “citizen science testing.” The agency traced the contamination to a coating on the fluorinated high-density polyethylene (HDPE) containers used to store and transport the pesticide.

The agency said it has requested information about the fluorination process and urged companies using containers with such coatings to “engage in good product stewardship and examine their distribution chains to identify potential sources of contamination.”

The advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility was responsible for the initial testing that raised alarms about the pesticide.

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'Pandora's Box'

“EPA’s discovery has opened a Pandora’s Box of health risks,” the organization’s Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett said in a statement this week. “Shipping containers may be a significant source of PFAS exposure through the entire U.S. agricultural sector.”

The pesticide in question is spread aerially to combat mosquitoes in many states, which could be responsible for contaminating water supplies.

But another concern is the potential contamination of pesticides and herbicides that are used on crops destined for human consumption.

“If those pesticides are used on food that would be a potential significant source of exposure,” Andrews said. “It definitely is a big concern and potentially the tip of the iceberg.”

Andrews said it will be an important task for the incoming administration and suggested the country should move away from nonessential use of PFAS.

“Hopefully this is a place where they can take quick action to really figure out the extent of this problem and ultimately bring an end to it,” Andrews said.

For his part, Biden has promised action when it comes to PFAS contamination.

“Instead of making empty promises with no follow-through, Biden will tackle PFAS pollution by designating PFAS as a hazardous substance, setting enforceable limits for PFAS in the Safe Drinking Water Act, prioritizing substitutes through procurement, and accelerating toxicity studies and research on PFAS,” according to Biden campaign materials on his environmental plans.

Capitol Hill Democrats also have identified PFAS as a priority.

Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement that PFAS are called “forever chemicals” for a reason.

“We need to move away from using these dangerous, toxic, hazardous chemicals wherever they’re used — it’s good that the EPA is looking into this new and alarming source of contamination, but it will be even better when President-elect Biden’s EPA takes actual action to get these chemicals out of our water, air, soil, and products,” Markey said.