Trump’s EPA will not set legal limit on dangerous chemicals in drinking water, report says

Chemicals have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, and weakened childhood immunity.

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler takes a sip of water before the start of his confirmation hearing to be the next administrator of the EPA on January 16, 2019. CREDIT: Somodevilla/Getty Images
Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler takes a sip of water before the start of his confirmation hearing to be the next administrator of the EPA on January 16, 2019. CREDIT: Somodevilla/Getty Images

Resisting calls from public health advocates for stricter regulations on toxic chemicals, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to refuse to set limits on the amount of two dangerous chemicals allowed in the nation’s drinking water.

Millions of Americans drink water that exceeds the government’s non-enforceable health advisory limit for the two chemicals — perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) — according to studies. The chemicals, which have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, and weakened childhood immunity, are the best-known members of the family of highly fluorinated compounds known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

These chemicals are typically used in Teflon, Scotch-Guard, and other consumer products, as well as foam used in fire-fighting. But on Monday, Politico reported that Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler approved a management plan of non-stick chemicals in December that stated the EPA would not set limits on amounts of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.

“The chemicals will remain unregulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act” under the still-unreleased draft plan that Wheeler signed off on in late December, according to sources speaking with Politico.


The EPA currently has no legal limits for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water, only a non-enforceable health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for either chemical or the two combined. But there is evidence that a safe level of exposure is much lower.

A legal limit for the PFAS chemicals has been sought by both Democrats and Republicans as the Trump administration continues to develop a federal management plan for the per- and poly-flouorinated chemicals.

Commenting on the news, the EPA said in an email to ThinkProgress that its PFAS action plan will outline the agency’s approach to identifying and understanding PFAS exposures and addressing the challenge from the toxic chemicals.

The action plan is currently undergoing interagency review. The EPA will be prepared to discuss the contents of the plan as soon as interagency review is complete, and the plan is public, an agency spokesperson said via email.


The EPA, in a new statement released Tuesday afternoon, emphasized that it has not finalized its PFAS management plan. “[A]ny information that speculates what is included in the plan is premature,” the EPA said. “The agency is committed to following the Safe Drinking Water Act process for evaluating new drinking water standards, which is just one of the many components of the draft plan that is currently undergoing interagency review.”

Last week, both Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives agreed to form a PFAS Task Force to address drinking water contamination caused by these toxic fluorinated chemicals.

One of the co-chairs of the House PFAS Task Force, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), said if the Trump administration follows through with the decision not to take action on PFAS contamination, it will pose a significant threat to public health.

“While the Trump Administration has claimed it wants to address PFAS, they have been all talk and no action,” Kildee said Tuesday in a statement. “Even the Trump administration’s own studies have identified how dangerous PFAS chemicals are, yet they refuse to act.”

Communities across the nation likely have PFAS in drinking water at levels as much as hundreds of times higher than the Centers for Disease Control and independent scientists consider safe, a level far lower than what EPA has stated is acceptable.

Michigan has the most known sites — 15 — contaminated by PFAS chemicals, followed by New York with 10. Tests have also found tap water supplies in North Carolina contaminated with a PFAS chemical called GenX. The industrial chemical has been found in the drinking water of more than 200,000 people in southeastern North Carolina alone.


“Millions of Americans are at risk of daily exposure to these highly toxic chemicals strongly suspected of causing cancer — just by drinking water from their taps. It is absolutely unconscionable for the Trump Administration to refuse to even start the process of setting a limit on these poisonous chemicals,” Erik Olson, senior director for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said in a statement.

Beyond exposure through drinking water, these chemicals are found in several types of consumer products, such as carpets, clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packing for food, firefighting foam, and other materials, such as cookware, that are resistant to water, grease, or stains. The chemicals used to treat these products can leach into the water supply during the manufacturing process, where they can remain for years.

At his January 16 confirmation hearing, Wheeler told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the agency would announce plans soon to address the widespread contamination of the nation’s tap water with the compounds PFOA and PFOS. But he did not commit to setting limits on the chemicals in drinking water.

During the hearing, Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, asked the nominee if he would commit that the federal government would set standards for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water within two years. The Delaware senator emphasized that he is not asking the EPA administrator to commit to enacting limits within two weeks or two months, which could be unrealistic for the federal agency.

But Wheeler was still unprepared to say the EPA would set limits under the Safe Drinking Water Act within that timeframe. “I can’t make that commitment because it’s in interagency review at this point,” Wheeler responded.

“During Mr. Wheeler’s nomination hearing earlier this month, Senator Carper was deeply troubled when Mr. Wheeler could not make a commitment that EPA will set a drinking water standard for these dangerous chemicals,” a spokesperson for Carper said in an email to ThinkProgress.

Part of the challenge in taking action to address the harmful chemicals, however, is that the Trump administration has a close relationship with the chemical industry.

For instance, Nancy Beck, the Trump administration appointee who oversees the EPA’s toxic chemical unit, previously worked as an executive at the American Chemistry Council, one of the industry’s main lobbying groups.

But as was made clear with the failed nomination of Michael Dourson to head the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety, there is bipartisan concern on this issue and bipartisan support for protections against these chemicals. Dourson, who worked for the EPA as a staff scientist earlier in his career, drew criticism for his long-time work as a consultant for chemical companies.

Several Republicans hesitated to support Dourson, including the two Republican senators from North Carolina, who raised concerns about contaminated water at the Camp Lejeune military base.

Nonetheless, the EPA has delayed setting legal limits for PFOA and PFOS for almost 20 years. This is despite the EPA’s own tests detecting PFAS pollution in the public water supplies of 16 million Americans in 33 states.

But the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental group, said it believes the EPA has severely underestimated of the scope of the problem.

EWG and researchers at Northeastern University have tracked 172 PFAS contamination sites in 40 states. Using unreleased data from the EPA tests, EWG estimates that water supplies for as many as 110 million Americans may be contaminated.

“The most efficient and equitable way to remove these chemicals from the nation’s drinking water supply is to use the agency’s authority to set legal limits,” Dr. David Andrews, a senior scientists for EWG, said Monday in a statement. “It’s a national problem, and it needs a national solution. Anything short of that is window dressing.”

In the absence of federal action on these chemicals, eight states have taken steps to address chemical contamination of drinking water because they see the EPA as dragging its feet. Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Texas, Vermont, and Washington have taken action over the past three years to regulate this class of toxic chemicals.

UPDATE: This article was updated to include a new comment from the EPA about its PFAS management plan.