“It is a Band-Aid, at best, that does essentially nothing to help the hundreds — perhaps thousands — of communities, in almost every state, with contaminated tap water,” says scientist David Andrews

By Diane Herbst
April 26, 2019 02:31 PM
Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed to weaken standards for cleaning up toxic chemicals used at military bases and found to have contaminated drinking water that millions of Americans consume, bowing from pressure from the Department of Defense, according to a report in the New York Times.

The toxic chemicals, called PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances), may pose health risks, including cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

PFAS have been used for decades in “non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics, some firefighting foams, and products that resist grease, water, and oil,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Defense Department has used significant amounts of PFAS-related chemicals in its firefighting, and has confirmed the toxic chemicals’ release or possible release at 401 locations across the country, the Times reports, citing a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

The EPA had set water contamination cleanup standards in the last year, including a suggestion that could have led to prompt removal of the toxic chemicals, but the Pentagon objected and brought concerns to the White House, reports the Times.

The suggestion has been erased from the current proposal, according to the newspaper. Instead, the current recommendations focus on remedial actions that can take years to clean up contaminated drinking water, and some sites that would have been required to clean up contaminated water may now avoid remediation, according to the publication.

The proposed weakened standards are open for public comment.

David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, called the EPA’s proposal a “woefully inadequate response” to the public health threat posed by widespread contaminated groundwater that’s been discovered in 33 states and affects some 10 million in the U.S., reports the Times.

“It is a Band-Aid, at best, that does essentially nothing to help the hundreds — perhaps thousands — of communities, in almost every state, with contaminated tap water,” he told the Times. “Americans need real and swift action to address this crisis, not more toothless proposals from the Trump administration.”

EPA spokesperson Corry Schiermeyer tells PEOPLE in an email that the the proposed changes to the standards do not mean that the agency would drop its responsibility to protect public health. “The criticisms are wrong, this draft is not a regulation and is not weak,” Schiermeyer writes.

“This is a critical tool for our state, tribal, and local partners to use to address these chemicals,” Schiermeyer writes. “Our draft guidance is the FIRST time the EPA has ever released guidelines for addressing or cleaning up groundwater contaminated by PFOA/PFOS and represents an important step under our PFAS Action Plan.”

Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement that the EPA’s guidance “fails to adequately protect public health from this emerging crisis.”

“[EPA] Administrator Wheeler said that safe drinking water is the greatest environmental challenge facing our world,” Carper said, “yet, again, we see that EPA is not addressing this issue in the manner in which it demands, nor with the urgency in which Americans deserve.”