In December 2020 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an “Interim Guidance” for disposal and destruction of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as “forever chemicals.” Unfortunately EPA’s new guidance does not ensure the public that PFAS can be disposed of safely. Instead, this document outlines and exposes a long list of unknowns about what happens to PFAS wastes sent to landfills or incinerators, or injected into deep wells underground. Most alarming, this document reveals that EPA does not have the data or information it needs to conclude that any of these three PFAS disposal methods are safe.
What are PFAS and why are they dangerous?
PFAS (per-and poly-flouroalkyl substances) are a class of more than 9,000 human-made chemicals that are toxic in very low concentrations. Because they are stain and oil resistant and repel water, PFAS have been widely used since the 1950s in firefighting foam and many common consumer products, including carpets, clothing, cookware, cosmetics, and food packaging. These “forever chemicals” are highly persistent and mobile in the environment, meaning they bioaccumulate and travel unchanged through streams, rivers, and other water bodies, including drinking water sources. PFAS can accumulate in our bodies and are linked to serious health problems including damage to liver, thyroid, and pancreatic function, immune system harm, hormone disruption, high cholesterol, and cancer.
Why is the EPA issuing this guidance?
The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20 NDAA) enacted by Congress required EPA to develop an interim guidance for the disposal and destruction of some PFAS and PFAS-containing materials. These included firefighting foam; soil and biosolids; filters, membranes, and other waste from water treatment; and solid, liquid, or gas wastes containing PFAS from facilities manufacturing or using PFAS. Congress directed EPA to ensure the guidance considers potential releases of PFAS into water, air, or on land during destruction or disposal. Congress also directed EPA to consider the impact different disposal methods could have on vulnerable communities.
Why are PFAS so hard to destroy and control?
These “forever chemicals” are difficult to destroy because of the fluorine-carbon bond, which is the strongest chemical bond known to humans. If not completely destroyed, these compounds can form new chemical bonds of concern. PFAS are also hard to control because current known methods of managing, destroying, or disposing this toxic waste simply don’t work. In fact, these unproven disposal options can result in more PFAS in our air, water, and soil.
EPA must do more to eliminate and control PFAS at the source
Current PFAS disposal practices are inadequate and can even exacerbate pollution. EPA must carry out more research to develop methods to manage, destroy, and dispose of PFAS safely. This is not a new issue -- communities impacted by PFAS pollution have raised concerns about additional PFAS exposure from unsafe disposal practices for years.
Instead of rushing to approve unproven methods to clean-up PFAS pollution, EPA should prioritize the protection of vulnerable communities by issuing strong safeguards to address PFAS pollution. Because PFAS are so difficult to clean-up, EPA must do everything in its power to strictly limit the use of PFAS to essential products and applications and to ensure these chemicals don’t end up in our air, water, and soil in the first place.