In 2018, the White House administration publicly vowed to take action to limit the use of the dangerous industrial compound perfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in consumer products. These substances are commonly used in the manufacture of rugs, stain-resistant frying pans, and a host of other products. The promise corresponded with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2018 declaration to “aggressively” confront consumer exposure to PFAS as a “national priority.”
Why It’s a National Priority
PFAS has been the subject of many public health studies, which have associated the compound with several cancers and weekend immunity. Testing over the years has revealed that PFAS exists in an alarming number of U.S. public water systems. The compounds are used in a dizzying array of products, from firefighting foams and cosmetics to non-stick cookware and water-repellent sports gear.
The “Safe Harbor” Loophole
The Associated Press (AP) published an article on April 17, 2020, that talked about the White House’s “moves to weaken” EPA’s efforts to regulate these dangerous compounds. According to the article, in July of 2019, the White House Office of Management and Budget alerted the EPA that it was to commence drafting rules on the matter of PFAS regulation. Subsequently, Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, who serves on the environment and Public Works Committee, obtained documents showing relentless efforts by the White House to seriously water down PFAS rules with a loophole permitting the import of PFAS-contaminated products.
Manufacturers agreed to start phasing out PFAS-tainted products in 2006, but many are still being produced in various parts of the world. The proposed rule would put an agency in charge of overseeing imports of these products. The “safe-harbor” loophole would make it harder for the EPA to flag any of these contaminated products for potential blocking.
Wolf in Charge of the Henhouse
According to evidence amassed by Carper, this effort was championed by former chemical-industry-industry executive Nancy Beck, whom President Trump had appointed to a position within the EPA, then moved to a position on his Council of Economic Advisors. Carper denounced the Administration’s intervention in a letter sent Friday, April 17, 2020, describing the pressures from Washington as unorthodox intervention in the EPA’s work to regulate PFAS-tainted imports.
The White House raised additional eyebrow when it began vetting Beck for a position to head the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), an independent federal agency that is tasked with safeguarding the public from toxic chemicals.
In March of 2020, President Trump nominated Beck for the CPSC position. This idea did not sit well with people who questioned Beck’s ability and inclination to make sound judgments in the genuine interest of public health, despite her career-long reputation, even while at the EPA, of “doing the bidding of the chemical industry at the expense of the health and safety of the American public,” in the words of Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ). To illustrate his point, Pallone described how Beck rewrote a rule in a way that complicated the process of tracking the health consequences of PFOA, at a time when the compound had already been linked to cancer, birth defects, and other health issues.
Where We Sit Today
Meanwhile, the EPA continued to reject the “safe harbor” provision but finally conceded in January 2020 to open the issue up for public comment. The window for public comment closed on February 3, 2020.
On April 17, 2020, Carper penned a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, in which Carper objected to the White House’s watered-down version of the PFAS rule. Congress ordered the White House to deliver its final rule by mid-summer.
Richard Denison, lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund advocacy group, told AP that if the final rule passes with Washington’s newly penned provisions intact, “it could even do more damage than good.”