The Environmental Protection Agency this week said it will tackle the issue of "forever chemicals" — PFAS — and other substances that are carcinogenic and which can build up to toxic levels in animals, fish and people, including in Lake Superior smelt.
The EPA for the first time will set limits on certain polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that persist in the environment and are associated with illnesses, including kidney cancer. Agency officials said they will issue restrictions on PFAS discharges from industrial sources in 2022 by establishing “technology-based limits” on the chemicals.
The EPA released a three-year plan on other actions to help prevent PFAS from being released into the air and food supply and to expand cleanup efforts.
“For far too long, families across America, especially those in underserved communities, have suffered from PFAS in their water, their air, or in the land their children play on,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement. “This comprehensive, national PFAS strategy will deliver protections to people who are hurting by advancing bold and concrete actions that address the full lifecycle of these chemicals.”
The U.S. Defense Department is surveying nearly 700 locations where the chemicals were used or may have been released, and expects to complete initial evaluations by late 2023, the White House said.
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One of those sites is the Duluth Air National Guard base, where significant amounts of PFAS have been found in groundwater, surface water and nearby lakes and streams, including in Miller Creek and Wild Rice Lake, likely from firefighting foam used in training on the base. It's also suspected that PFAS may be building up under old landfills.
Earlier this year, state officials issued fish consumption advisories for Lake Superior smelt, warning people to limit their meals of smelt to one per month because of PFAS buildup. It’s unclear where those chemicals are coming from or why smelt are bioaccumulating PFAS.
There are more than 5,000 PFAS compounds — often called "forever chemicals" because they don't ever break down entirely — that have been used for decades in hundreds of industrial processes and products, especially for nonstick cookware, waterproofing compounds, packaging and firefighting foam.
PFAS chemicals are now found in food, groundwater, drinking water, lakes, rivers, fish tissue and even in deer. Several other states have issued advisories to avoid or limit fish due to PFAS contamination, and some areas in Michigan and Wisconsin have PFAS advisories for limiting or not eating venison from deer shot near highly contaminated PFAS sites.
A bill in Congress holds $10 billion to address contaminants including PFAS through state revolving funds. Another spending bill also includes investments for the EPA to monitor for PFAS in drinking water.