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Hearing examines response to PFAS risks

Representatives of the EPA, the Department of Defense, the National Center for Environmental Health/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences offered their perspectives on their role regarding PFAS risks at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing March 28.

PFAS are a group of manmade chemicals that contaminate public water and can lead to adverse health outcomes.

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, who chairs the committee and Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, a ranking member, opened the hearing with comments and the four representatives followed with statements.

Barrasso said the committee has issued provisions to address the PFAS issue and established grant opportunities to assist states with testing and remediation. “This hearing will seek to establish new steps to find bipartisan solutions,” he said.

Carper immediately struck out at the EPA’s hesitation to establish Maximum Contaminant Levels for two PFAS. “EPA is simply not approaching the issue of protecting drinking water for millions of Americans with nearly the same urgency and zeal with which it repeals Obama-era regulations,” he said. 

David Ross, Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Water, identified PFAS as a growing health concern and reviewed the agency’s PFA’s Action Plan, which it released in February. “The EPA is taking important steps to follow the Safe Water Drinking Act and make a regulatory determination of PFOA and PFOS by the end of the year and also determine whether a broader range of PFAS should be added,” he said.

After Ross and the other representatives made their statements, the senators asked follow-up questions, with Carper again focusing on the EPA’s policy on enacting MCLs. “I focus on urgency and know it when I see it and I don’t feel it from the EPA,” he said.

“I see urgency every day with employees working around the clock,” Ross said. “They are dedicated to their mission and saying they are not doing enough is a disservice to the workers who are working every day.”

Maureen Sullivan, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment at DOD, discussed the department’s efforts at handling PFAS contamination near military bases. “We tested 524 drinking systems that serve over two million residents and 24 tested above the EPA levels so we provide bottled water and additional water treatment,” she said. “We will also look for alternatives to the AFFF firefighting foam that contains PFAS.”

Patrick Breyesse, Director of the National Center for Environmental Health/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said the center has examined PFAS exposure in 30 U.S. communities and is analyzing blood and urine tests to make public health recommendations. The center is overseeing the Pease International Tradepost study that will test the blood of children and adults who lived near the Pease Air Force base at the time PFAS were reported. “The study will help us plan the multi-site study for PFAS exposure,” he said.

Linda Birnbaum, Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health spoke of research she has overseen on the health impacts of PFAS exposure. “There are many health outcomes, including cancer and we are currently researching exposure to more than 100 PFAS compounds,” she said.

“Approaching PFAS as a class instead of individual components is the best way to protect public health and science is critical in identifying this type of chemicals.”

New Hampshire’s senators aren’t members of the Environment and Public Works Committee and didn’t participate in the hearing but they have taken an active role in PFAS legislation and participated in a previous Senate hearing on PFAS.

“I am pleased that the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing to examine the federal response to addressing PFAS in drinking water – a pressing issue for many Granite Staters in Merrimack and across the state,” Sen. Maggie Hassan said. “I appreciated that my colleagues emphasized to federal officials testifying the critical need to act with the urgency that this situation requires to keep our communities safe.” 

“Confronting PFAS contamination in our communities is an issue that must remain front and center, which is why I’m glad to see Congress push for more transparency from the administration during yesterday’s hearing,” said Sen Jeanne Shaheen.