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Although there is growing evidence about the risks associated with the use of chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have been widely used in firefighting foam and other products, leading to water contamination problems nationwide, a new investigative report published this week indicates the Trump administration undermined what would have been stringent guidelines on the use of the toxic chemicals, which are known to persist and buildup in the environment.
According to a report by The Hill, documents show the White House stepped in to shut down a strict PFAS ban, which was under consideration by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As a result, the report indicates restrictions on PFAS use was significantly weakened.
PFAS chemicals are used widely in a variety of products. However, much of the attention on those chemicals has been focused on their use in aqueous film-forming foams (AFFFs), which have been widely used for decades at military bases and by various firefighting organizations, during training exercises and in response to certain fuel-based fires. It has now been discovered that the fire foam chemicals have caused widespread water contamination throughout the U.S, particularly around military bases, airports and other training locations.
According to The Hill’s findings, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) stepped in before the release of the EPA’s December guidance on PFAS chemicals, watering them down to a much weaker form than originally planned by EPA regulators.
The guidance involved requiring wastewater treatment facilities to develop plans for removal of PFAS from treated water, and the dissemination of information on how to properly test for the presence of PFAS in wastewater. It also included descriptions of the proper use of thermal treatment, the use of landfills and underground injection technologies. It addressed the use of PFAS in many different products, including aqueous film-forming foam used to combat certain types of fires.
However, the report indicates that before interference by the OMB, the EPA had planned to restrict imports of products which have components covered with PFAS on the inside. Following those changes, according to the report, the OMB changes mean companies can import products with interior PFAS coatings without even informing the agency.
The agency is accepting public comment on the interim guidance for 60 days following publication in the federal register in mid-December, and, if approved, the guidance will be reviewed and revised at least once every three years.
The new strategies come as chemical and safety equipment manufacturers face hundreds of firefighting foam lawsuits pending nationwide, including claims presented by local governments and water districts, as well as claims brought by former firefighters diagnosed with testicular cancer, kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer and other injuries after direct exposure to the chemicals.
Given common questions of fact and law raised in the PFAS litigation, all cases filed throughout the federal court system are currently centralized in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina for coordinated discovery and pretrial proceedings, where small groups of water contamination cases and cancer claims are being prepared for early trial dates.