House Subcommittees Hold Hearing on PFAS R&D
On December 7, 2021, the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittees on Environment and on Research and Technology held a joint hearing entitled “Forever Chemicals: Research and Development for Addressing the PFAS Problem.” Four witnesses spoke before the subcommittees on their respective knowledge of the current state of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and where each felt future actions should be focused: Dr. Elsie Sunderland, Gordon McKay Professor of Environmental Chemistry, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Ms. Abigail Hendershott, Executive Director, Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART); Ms. Amy Dindal, Director of Environmental Research and Development, Battelle Memorial Institute; and Dr. Peter Jaffé, Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Princeton University.
Leading the hearing were Chairwoman Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) and Vice Chairwoman Stephanie Bice (R-OK), alongside Ranking Members Michael Waltz (R-FL) and Haley Stevens (D-MI). In opening remarks, Representatives Sherrill and Stevens each relayed the effects that PFAS contamination and remediation are having on their respective communities. Representative Stevens stated that in Michigan, 194 PFAS contamination sites have been identified, leading to one of the biggest environmental crises in a half-century. Both New Jersey and Michigan are states that have implemented PFAS safe drinking water standards. Representative Waltz stated that PFAS as a whole have presented health and environmental hazards to communities, but relayed that these compounds are also integral to many of the products that consumers rely upon day to day. Representative Waltz stressed that there is a strong need for cooperation between the federal and private spheres for research and development (R&D) to bridge the gap between use and knowledge. Representative Bice focused on the need not to apply a categorical ban on all uses of the various PFAS compounds in use today. Representative Bice noted that there are many PFAS compounds, each with varying properties and risk profiles. Representative Bice stated that “it is important to remember not to villainize the entire category of chemicals” and that “using certain PFAS in controlled, responsible manner is safe and effective.”
The hearing was widely attended, with 14 members posing questions to the witnesses. In her opening testimony, Dr. Sunderland addressed the concentrations of PFAS found within humans and the various known modes of exposure. Dr. Sunderland stated that drinking water is currently thought to be the major exposure pathway. She noted that this understanding is not confirmed, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been underfunded and unable to fulfill the research required to understand all exposure pathways. Dr. Sunderland stressed that moving forward, EPA should determine which PFAS are essential to society and which compounds have viable, less toxic substitutes. Representative Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX) inquired as to what gaps currently exist in PFAS R&D that should be addressed moving forward. Dr. Sunderland replied that most of the research focuses on community exposure assessments in contamination zones, whereas knowledge about the general public’s toxicity exposure is lacking. Dr. Sunderland noted that this area of research is one that both federal agencies and private institutions should be working to address. Representative Sean Casten (D-IL) asked whether there are known dose responses or safe levels of exposure from food sources. Dr. Sunderland stated that given the vast number of PFAS compounds, this information is not available and that most of the known food exposure pathway data are from the European Union. Dr. Sunderland again relayed that with food exposure pathways, one of the easiest ways to address the issue is to determine which PFAS are essential in food contact materials and which can be replaced.
Ms. Hendershott focused her testimony on the need for toxicology research to gain better predictive models for PFAS behavior in the environment to understand food and water exposure pathways better. Representative Susan Wild (D-PA) inquired about what lessons could be imparted to Pennsylvania legislators in developing maximum contaminant levels (MCL) for safe drinking water. Ms. Hendershott stated that it is critically important to make sure that the best available science is used, including modeling and human health outcomes for the known PFAS compounds. Ms. Hendershott noted that once the MCLs are set, it can be a challenging and lengthy process to readjust them. Representative Dan Kildee (D-MI) asked how Michigan has been working to address PFAS in fire-fighting foam. Ms. Hendershott stated that these foams are still in use as there are currently no available substitutes that meet military requirements. Ms. Hendershott noted that Michigan adopted best management practices and works to clean the site quickly so that PFAS do not enter the environment.
Ms. Dindal, in her opening testimony, focused on the technological advances made by the Battelle Memorial Institute in PFAS remediation. Battelle’s “PFAS Annihilator” uses data compilation and filtering to identify PFAS compounds and remediate water sources. The technology is scheduled for deployment early next year. Representative Jake Ellzey (R-TX) inquired as to the scalability of the technology and the energy use required. Ms. Dindal stated that Battelle is working alongside the Department of Defense (DOD) and that the technology allows for mobile deployment. Ms. Dindal relayed that the PFAS Annihilator can be used with an external generator or plugged into household sockets. When asked about the costs of deployment by Representative Kildee, Ms. Dindal noted that cost was an important issue Battelle and DOD were addressing. Ms. Dindal stated that in order for this technology to be effective, it must be available for all communities in need of PFAS cleanup.
The focus of Dr. Jaffé’s testimony concerned the breadth of molecular structures and physical properties within the various PFAS compounds. Dr. Jaffé stressed that the large variance in PFAS characteristics makes it a challenge to research and regulate PFAS as a group. Rather than studying or regulating PFAS compounds individually, Dr. Jaffé stressed the needs both to identify the molecular properties that affect the toxicity, fate, and transport within the environment and to create a potential treatment method based on these groupings. Representative Melanie Stansbury (D-NM) inquired as to how to expedite remediation efforts within the agricultural and dairy industries. Dr. Jaffé noted that remediation within this sector is challenging due to the exposure pathways and PFAS dispersal within sewage sludge in the environment. Dr. Jaffé returned to his prior analysis that first there needs to be an understanding of the PFAS compound properties so that specific groupings can be removed from the food chain and not reintroduced into agriculture. Representative Sherrill posed the question of how to use enforceable federal drinking water standards, given the research currently available. Dr. Jaffé stated that currently, most states and EPA are focused on perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), rather than site-specific contamination with specific PFAS compounds. Dr. Jaffé stated that more emphasis needs to be placed on PFAS compounds that exist in nature and interact with one another, rather than just those that are manufactured or disposed of within the area.
The atmosphere of the hearing was one of curiosity. Each subcommittee member took the opportunity to engage with the witnesses on what is and is not currently known about the class of chemicals. As the witnesses discussed gaps in the understanding and research of PFAS as a whole, members probed further into what research needed to be done, the cost of conducting this research, and how to move forward in addressing remediation problems. There was significant interest in the technological developments of Battelle Memorial Institute’s PFAS Annihilator and its scope and deployability. There was also a heavy focus on PFAS use in fire-fighting foams, the lack of suitable alternatives, and the current actions taken to remediate military bases and airports with legacy pollution from current and prior use. Additionally, subcommittee members were curious to gain the witnesses’ perspectives on how the EPA PFAS Strategic Roadmap can best address PFAS knowledge gaps, future research, and technological needs for remediation.