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EPA designates two ‘forever chemicals’ as hazardous substances

<i>Jon Elswick/AP via CNN Newsource</i><br/>The US Environmental Protection Agency designated two
Jon Elswick/AP via CNN Newsource
The US Environmental Protection Agency designated two "forever chemicals" as hazardous substances because they have been linked to cancer and other health problems.

By Mira Cheng, CNN

(CNN) — The US Environmental Protection Agency designated two widely used “forever chemicals” as hazardous substances under the United States’ Superfund law on Friday.

This ruling will allow the EPA to investigate and clean up leaks and spills of these harmful chemicals, according to the official news release. It will also ensure that polluters are charged for the clean-up of contamination involving these chemicals.

The two designated chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), belong to a larger class of per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds (PFAS) considered “forever chemicals” because they take a long time to break down in the environment and in the human body.

This class of chemicals helps repel water and oil and was used in products like Teflon and firefighting foam for decades. While manufacturing was largely phased out due to health concerns, the chemicals can still be found in hundreds of household items and in drinking water systems and are thought to be in the blood of 98% of the human population.

The final rule classifies these two chemicals as hazardous substances, meaning that studies have shown that they are a threat to human health and can cause cancer and birth defects. Exposure to “forever chemicals” has been linked to cancers, heart and liver disease and immune and developmental damage to infants and children, according to the news release.

“Designating these chemicals under our Superfund authority will allow EPA to address more contaminated sites, take earlier action, and expedite cleanups, all while ensuring polluters pay for the costs to clean up pollution threatening the health of communities,” Michael S. Regan, administrator of the EPA, said in a news release.

In addition to the final rule, the EPA issued a separate enforcement policy that emphasizes that the agency will target companies that have contributed significantly to the manufacturing and release of these chemicals into the environment.

“For far too long, the unchecked use and disposal of toxic PFAS have wreaked havoc on our planet, contaminating everything from our drinking water to our food supply,” Dr. David Andrews, deputy director of investigations and a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement. “Urgent action is needed to clean up contaminated sites, eliminate future release of these pollutants and shield people from additional exposure.”

Environmentalists say the EPA’s announcement is a good start, but groups like the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Environment America Research and Policy Center have called on the EPA to ban the entire class of PFAS chemicals. There are more than 12,000 forms of PFAS chemicals in the environment.

“No one should have to worry in 2024 about whether their well water, farm produce or even clothing is contaminated with toxic chemicals, but unfortunately that’s the reality for millions of Americans,” Lisa Frank, executive director of Environment America Research and Policy Center’s Washington office, said in a statement. “This announcement is a critical step toward getting PFAS out of our waterways and making polluters pay. Now, we need to turn off the tap on toxic PFAS everywhere.”

The EPA said this ruling is part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s larger efforts to safeguard communities from PFAS contamination. The designation comes just weeks after the EPA announced new limits for “forever chemicals” in drinking water in the United States.

CNN’s Jen Christensen contributed to this report

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