EPA announces toxic ‘forever chemicals’ are far more dangerous than previously thought

NM invited to apply for federal funds to clean up contamination, awaits more guidance

Cows with high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS at a farm in Maine. (Photo by Adam Glanzman / Bloomberg)

The Environmental Protection Agency announced this week it takes far less exposure to two widespread toxic chemicals to endanger people’s health. This advisory could impact cleanup of plumes of the chemicals already found in New Mexico water sources.

The chemicals are two well-known PFAs — shorthand for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. 

What are they?

PFAs are human-made chemicals characterized by strong carbon-fluorine bonds, making them water, fire and oil resistant. First manufactured in the 1940s, they’ve been used in household and industrial products, such as non-stick pans, waterproof apparel, carpet, food packaging and more. They’ve also been used by the military to extinguish fuel fires. 

The two most common — PFOA and PFOS — were voluntarily phased out of U.S. manufacturing in the 2000s but are still used in products internationally. Chemists have identified more than 9,000 PFAs.

PFAs don’t break down by being exposed to water, microorganisms or in sunlight, giving them the nickname “forever chemicals.” They persist in soil and water. These chemicals build up in both animal and human bodies and can be passed to children in breast milk. In very small doses, PFAs are linked to reproductive health impacts, cancers, and liver and kidney harm, among other health problems. 

In the EPA announcement Wednesday, federal officials said health impacts can occur in concentrations that “are near zero,” thousands of times smaller than the agency previously published. 

The federal agency now recommends that people are exposed to less than four parts of PFOA per quadrillion and 20 parts of PFOS per quadrillion over an entire lifetime. But most people in the United States have likely been exposed to some amount, according to the EPA. 

As a health advisory, the EPA’s announcement is not legally binding, and it’s considered non-enforceable. But federal officials said the advisory was needed due to the threat the chemicals pose to public health. The agency is also working on PFAs National Drinking Water rule, expected in fall 2022. If enacted, utilities could face penalties for failing to meet future standards. 

In a wrinkle for enforcement down the line, the EPA said the recommended limits announced this week are so small that they are below the agency’s ability to detect with current technology

NMED Deputy Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Roose said the state agency is awaiting further guidance on PFAs regulation expected later this year. She said the department has to spend time learning what the new studies determined about PFAs and how to implement changes to any water systems. 

In the meantime, the department will assist more municipalities and rural water facilities to test for PFAs, Roose said. 

“We need to do a lot more of that discovery,” she said, “find out what we have, where we have it and what levels we’re at.” 

Two plumes of the PFAs threaten New Mexico’s groundwaters and led to the euthanization of 3,665 cows in May that consumed water from contaminated wells at a Clovis dairy. 

The PFAs contamination was first announced in 2018 in groundwaters surrounding Holloman Air Force Base southwest of Alamogordo, and Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis. New Mexico filed lawsuits against the U.S. Air Force in 2019, saying the military should be responsible for cleaning up the contamination from past firefighting activities on base. Those lawsuits are still ongoing. 

New Mexico has been invited to apply for $1 billion in funding the EPA opened up to fight PFAs contamination in drinking water Wednesday. 

“We have no more resources today as a state agency to tackle PFAS than we did two days ago, before EPA’s announcement,” Roose said. “We have limited resources to navigate significant changes in policy.” 

Roose said studies of the plumes are ongoing by a contractor, and reports to NMED are expected in the summer. 

Around Cannon Air Force base, PFAs used in firefighting foams were found in a two-mile plume in the Ogallala aquifer at 1,000 parts per trillion. No PFAs were detected in Clovis’ or Cannon’s water system, but one house in a public water cooperative and two domestic wells had detectable PFAs, according to a 2019 NMED presentation.

At Holloman Air Force Base, NMED said it detected PFAs at nine private wells in 2019 within a 4-mile radius, and four were above the health advisory standard then. “Extremely high levels” of PFAs were found at Holloman lake, according to NMED. In 2019, the New Mexico Department of Health urged visitors not to swim, drink any water or foam, or touch the lake if possible. 

Asked if New Mexico would ban the use of Aqueous Film Forming Foam in drills, as New York, Vermont  and several other states have, Roose said the department is examining PFAs contamination “cradle to grave” but did not have a specific policy recommendation.

“I don’t have anything specific to share with you in terms of a specific prohibition, moratorium or ban on any particular PFAs-containing material,” Roose said.


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Danielle Prokop, El Paso Matters
Danielle Prokop, El Paso Matters

Danielle Prokop is a climate change and environment reporter with El Paso Matters. She’s covered climate, local government and community at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in Nebraska and the Santa Fe New Mexican. She can be reached at [email protected]