WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency said on Friday it will designate the two most commonly detected toxic “forever chemicals,” which have been linked to cancer and have been found in everything from drinking water to furniture, as hazardous substances.
The move doesn’t ban the chemicals, known as PFAS, but the proposed rule is one the most significant actions the E.P.A. has taken to date on perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds. It requires companies to assess and report to the government when the chemicals seep into water or soil, and could make companies responsible for any cleanup costs.
The compounds are among more than 4,000 human-made chemicals that are often called “forever chemicals” because they break down slowly, seep into water and soil and can linger in the human body once ingested. Manufacturers have agreed to phase out the use of the chemicals — but as the nickname implies, the “forever chemicals” are still being detected in products and people. They have been linked to certain cancers, low birth weights, thyroid disease and other health effects.
“Communities have suffered far too long from exposure to these forever chemicals,” Michael S. Regan, the administrator of the E.P.A., said in a statement. He said the rule will “both help protect communities from PFAS pollution and seek to hold polluters accountable for their actions.”
The agency signaled it may also regulate other PFAS chemicals in the future, saying it will issue a notice of advanced rule-making later this year to invite comments about designating other compounds as hazardous.
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Forever chemicals. A team of scientists has found a cheap, effective way to destroy so-called forever chemicals, a group of compounds that pose a global threat to human health. The chemicals — known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are found in a spectrum of products and contaminate water and soil around the world.
Republican lawmakers criticized the regulation, saying it will impose an undue burden on businesses since PFAS chemicals have been found in a wide range of products including carpets, waterproof clothing and food packaging, including some microwave popcorn bags. In a scientific ruling earlier this year, the E.P.A. found there is no safe level of the chemicals and lowered the health risk thresholds close to zero, replacing 2016 guidelines that had set them at 70 parts per trillion.
“I am concerned about the uncertainty and unintended consequences that today’s proposal could have,” said Shelley Moore Capito, a Senator from West Virginia and the leading Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the E.P.A. She called on the agency to prioritize technology that can remove and destroy the compounds rather than put the onus on manufacturers.
“The best way to give Americans confidence that they are safe from PFAS should be prioritizing research efforts to both understand the environmental and public health challenges the chemicals pose and develop technologies to ultimately find, remove, and destroy PFAS for good,” she said in a statement.
Under the proposed rule, the E.P.A. would designate the two compounds as hazardous under the Superfund law, which enables the agency to require polluting companies to clean up environmental hazards. Agency officials said the reporting requirements will give the federal government “improved data and the option to require cleanups and recover cleanup costs to protect public health and encourage better waste management.”
The Environmental Working Group, an environmental organization, last year identified 41,828 industrial and municipal sites in the United States that it said are known or suspected of still using PFAS.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it and a coalition of more than a dozen trade groups representing clothing and footwear manufacturers, oil companies and the paper and packing industries oppose the rule.
“It would slow current cleanups, impose significant liability and compliance costs, and lead to unintended consequences, without effectively addressing the challenges presented by PFAS,” the Chamber said.
Environmental activists said the regulation is overdue. Mark Ruffalo, the actor and activist, issued a statement saying the move will hold chemical polluters accountable. “We have all paid for decades — in the forms of higher health care costs and higher drinking water bills — for one of the greatest environmental crimes in history,” he said.
The E.P.A. said it will publish the proposed rule in the federal register in the coming weeks, and then the public will have 60 days to comment before the plan can be finalized.