“In May 2018, we released a blog highlighting paper mills as a potentially significant source of drinking water contamination from 14 Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved poly- and per-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) used to greaseproof paper. We showed that wastewater discharge could result in PFAS concentrations in rivers in excess of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s 70 parts per trillion (ppt) health advisory level for drinking water contamination for PFOA and PFOS, the most studied of the PFASs. We identified 269 paper mills with discharge permits that warrant investigation. Readers of the blog have asked some important questions highlighted below. As with most issues involving PFAS, there are many gaps in what we know. Based on the information provided in response to EDF’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to FDA, we hope to fill in some of the gaps and highlight key information needed to better understand the risks of PFASs.  

Question 1: Could textile mills also be a source of PFASs in drinking water?

The answer is ‘probably.’ The FDA-approved PFASs can be used in coating paper that contacts food to repel oil, grease, and water. The same or similar FDA-approved PFASs may be used for non-food uses such as coating textiles to resist stains and repel water

Question 2: Would an environmental permit writer be alerted to the presence of FDA-approved PFAS in wastewater discharge?

The answer is ‘no.’ EPA has not added any PFAS to either the CWA’s Section 311 Hazardous Substance List or Section 307 Toxic Pollutant List, which would trigger required reporting or chemical testing. Since PFASs are not on either of these lists, a facility discharging wastewater to surface water does not need to notify the permit writer of the presence of PFASs when applying for or renewing its Clean Water Act (CWA) National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. These permits must be renewed every five years…

In addition, chemicals on the CWA’s hazardous substance list are subject to significant release reporting and liability for cleanup costs. If a company notifies the state in its permit application that the chemical on the hazardous substance list may be present in the discharge, they can get an exemption from these release reporting and liability risks (also known as a permit shield)…

Question 3: Are there other benefits to adding PFAS to the CWA Hazardous Substance list?

The answer is ‘yes.’ If PFASs were added to either of the CWA lists, they would be automatically added to the CERLA/Superfund Section 102 Hazardous Substance list[3] and, therefore, covered by the more expansive cleanup and reporting requirements under that law. Therefore, adding the chemicals to the CWA Hazardous Substance List would deliver all the benefits of CERCLA as well as the Clean Water Act…

Question 4: Is there another way to find out if a facility near my home uses PFASs?

The answer is ‘probably, but it is complicated.’ Under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), a facility is required to report any hazardous chemical to a state emergency response commission and a local emergency planning committee if there is more than 10,000 pounds of a chemical on site at any time, and it is required to have a safety data sheet for the chemical under the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard. PFASs meet the definition of a hazardous chemical under the OSHA standard.”

Read the full article by Tom Neltner and Maricel Maffini