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Biden announces plan to halt spread of ‘forever chemicals’

Illinois is tracking contaminated water across the state and identified more than 100 water systems with traces of PFAS. 

EPA Administrator Michael Regan, pictured here with Mayor Lori Lightfoot during a visit to Chicago in May, announced a “roadmap” to address PFAS contamination, especially in drinking water.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan, pictured here with Mayor Lori Lightfoot during a visit to Chicago in May, announced a “roadmap” to address PFAS contamination, especially in drinking water.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

President Joe Biden’s top environmental official announced a plan to address the widespread contamination of a class of cancer-causing toxic substances known as forever chemicals.

While the proposal is little more than a “roadmap” at this point, advocates say it puts a needed spotlight on the persistent chemicals known as PFAS that have been found in drinking water supplies across the country, including in Illinois.

Among the goals are timelines to set contamination limits for drinking water, a designation declaring PFAS a hazardous substance and increased study and monitoring. In addition to cancer, the class of chemicals has been linked to liver damage, high blood pressure, low infant birth weights and other health issues.

The plan was announced by Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan.

“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,” Regan said in a statement.

Short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS is used in hundreds of products from nonstick pans to stain-proof clothing to firefighting foam.

Sonya Lunder, a Sierra Club toxics expert who has worked on the PFAS issue nationally, said states like Illinois may move faster on the issue than the federal government.

“It didn’t feel ambitious,” Lunder said of the Biden administration announcement. “It doesn’t feel like it’s stepping up to the urgency of the problem.”

In Illinois, state environmental officials have found more than 100 drinking water systems across the state, including some in the Chicago area, that tested positive for measurable levels of the chemicals.

There’s no agreed national standard on safe levels of PFAS. Illinois officials have been flagging any water system that shows 2 parts per trillion measurements to understand the scope of the contamination in Illinois. A trailer park in Rockford showed levels so high in a community well that residents were provided bottled water until they can be connected to another water system.

Chicago’s water department reported no measurable levels of PFAS in the state’s most recent survey.

The chemicals industry has already signaled a potential fight over regulations.

“Approximately 600 PFAS substances are manufactured or in use today, each with its own unique properties and uses, from cellphones to solar panels, for which alternatives are not always available,” the trade group American Chemistry Council said in a statement.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.