EPA proposes some ‘forever chemicals’ be considered hazardous

The US Environmental Protection Agency is proposing that it will label nine of the thousands of PFAS “forever chemicals” as hazardous.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, are considered a “forever chemical” because it takes a long time to break down in the environment and in the human body. They’re 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.

A change to the regulations would make it easier for the government to address PFAS as a part of its cleanup program, the EPA said. Last year, the EPA proposed the first national drinking water standard for PFAS chemicals.

“Thanks to strong partnerships with our co-regulators in the states, we will strengthen our ability to clean up contamination from PFAS, hold polluters accountable and advance public health protections,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

The EPA said it’s proposing to change the definition of hazardous waste in regard to cleanups at permitted hazardous waste facilities. The agency signed a proposal to change Resource Conservation and Recovery Act regulations on Wednesday that would add some of the most common PFAS compounds, their salts, and structural isomers to a list of “hazardous constituents.”

Under EPA regulations, to be considered a “hazardous constituent,” studies must show that the chemical is a threat to human health or “other life forms” and demonstrate that the chemical is toxic; that it can cause cancer; is mutagenic, meaning it could prompt a change in the DNA and damage a cell potentially leading to cancer; or teratogenic, which means that the chemical can disturb the growth and development of an embryo or fetus.

For years, studies have shown that these chemicals are much more hazardous to human health than scientists initially thought and are dangerous at levels thousands of times lower than previously believed.

Exposure to PFAS chemicals are thought to lead to reproductive problems, heart issues, breathing problems such as asthma, and problems with the immune system, in addition to cancers.

While the EPA is proposing to regulate nine PFAS, there are thousands of these chemicals that have been used to make coatings and products that can repel water, grease, heat and oil. The chemicals are found in carpets, clothing, cookware, and many other common household products.

High concentrations have even been found as far away as the Arctic and in the blood of animals that live in areas that presumably have little opportunities for direct exposure to these human-made chemicals.

Before it could become official, the EPA must seek input from the public. The public comment period is open for 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register.

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 been calling the EPA to ban the entire class of PFAS chemicals, not just the nine. There are more than 12,000 forms of PFAS chemicals in the environment.

“For decades the chemical industry has polluted our communities with toxic ‘forever chemicals,’ putting our health at risk,” said Emily Scarr, director of U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s Stop Toxic PFAS campaign, in a news release. “The EPA’s proposal is a welcome step toward cleaning up contamination. To fully prevent harm from PFAS, we need to phase out the use of the entire class of PFAS and regulate them as a single class. Otherwise, our regulators and lawmakers will be stuck playing an endless game of whack-a mole.”

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