EPA To Assess Specific PFAS In Eco-Purchasing Advice For Feds

November 17, 2022

Correction Appended

EPA will determine on a case-by-case basis whether to treat PFAS as a specific chemical or a class of chemicals when it assesses environmental performance standards and “ecolabels” to develop procurement recommendations for federal government sustainable purchasing, according to the official leading the EPA portion of the effort.

“That is something that will be determined when we do those hotspot analyses by product category,” Jenna Larkin of EPA’s Environmentally Preferrable Purchasing Program said during a Nov. 15 webinar, adding that the agency will determine whether it is an entire class or just specific types of per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that should be covered by a particular purchase category.

EPA recently invited private groups to submit standards for identifying PFAS-free products it could include in updated recommendations for federal purchasing, which are expected to be finalized in summer 2023.

The invitation followed the agency’s issuance in March of a revised framework for assessing marketplace standards and ecolabels for environmental sustainability. EPA hosted the Nov. 15 webinar to provide potential applicants an update on how to use the document as part of their submissions, the first part of which is due Jan. 1, 2023.

If it is determined that PFAS is a “hotspot” in the purchase category of the framework, “we would expect the standards and ecolabels to meaningfully and measurably address that PFAS hotspot, but it will probably differ by product and service category,” Larkin said.

Larkin’s comments indicating EPA could, at least in some instances, address PFAS broadly under the framework appear to respond to August recommendations from the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which encouraged EPA to expand its identification of PFAS-free products in federal procurement standards.

The recommendations were contained in guidance for implementing President Joe Biden’s December 2021 federal sustainability executive order (EO), EO 14057.

The federal government lacks a single definition of what constitute PFAS, which could include thousands of chemicals used in myriad consumer products and industrial operations for their stain-resistant properties and the ability to withstand extreme heat and pressure.

For example, EPA recently adopted a broad definition of PFAS -- although not as broad as environmentalists have urged -- in its latest list of drinking water contaminants that may require regulation, while emphasizing that the broad definition only applied to the fifth contaminant candidate list and does not represent an agency-wide definition.

Yet Larkin’s comments about EPA’s determination of PFAS as a specific substance, or class, under the framework could be good news for the chemical industry, which has consistently pushed back on any policies or regulations that treat PFAS as a single class of chemicals.

The recommendations EPA is developing are part of the Biden administration’s federal sustainable purchasing initiative that includes EO 14057 and Office of Management and Budget directive 22-07, calling for the reduction or elimination of products containing PFAS, among other environmental goals such as reduced carbon emissions.

Avoiding PFAS

EPA PFAS Council chief Matt Klasen, who is responsible for coordinating the agency’s efforts on researching and remediating the persistent toxic chemicals, recently touted the revised framework as a key tool in the administration’s overall efforts for preventing PFAS contamination.

“And there’s a specific priority for reducing the purchase of products with added PFAS,” Klasen said about the EPA framework, during a Nov. 14 webinar hosted by the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences.

“EPA is working very hard to provide purchasers with tools to help avoid these chemicals to identify particular products and purchase categories to pay attention to,” he said, adding “we're doing outreach to ecolabel and standards organizations on addressing PFAS.”

Klasen said EPA’s council and CEQ’s August “implementing instructions” on Biden’s sustainable purchasing executive order were intended to “make the federal government a leader in sustainable purchasing and help transition away from products that may contain PFAS.”

To meet those eco-purchasing goals, EPA’s revised framework is divided into four sections for respondents to answer questions about their process for developing environmental performance standards or ecolabels, the environmental effectiveness of those standards, their conformity assessment process and overall management of the program.

The section involving “hotspots” referenced by Larkin in the treatment of PFAS is found in the environmental effectiveness portion of the framework.

“It is required to provide responses for criteria II.1, II.2, as well as II.3 and II.4 when chemical substances of concern are a key hotspot for the purchase category,” the framework document says. “Responses to other criteria are encouraged to inform potential federal users and other interested parties about the standard's approach to addressing environmental impacts and performance opportunities.”

Among those “required” criteria is a section on “hotspots” and “specific lifecycle stage impacts,” asking respondents to explain if their standards “shall strive to address all hotspots across the life cycle of the product/service or clearly indicate if they are intentionally only addressing one hotspot or a limited number of hotspots for a product/service,” according to the document. “Pollution prevention approaches to addressing climate, toxic chemicals, and materials management are preferred.”

EPA announced its intention to expand its environmental performance standard and ecolabel recommendations last November.

“EPA is seeking to assess multi-attribute standards and ecolabels that recognize environmental performance leadership and support federal goals and mandates regarding climate, safer chemicals, or other sustainable acquisition priorities of the Biden-Harris Administration (e.g., net-zero emissions, low embodied carbon construction materials, and the restriction or elimination of per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in certified products),” the agency said in announcing the expansion.

EPA’s purchasing recommendations are expected to influence the hundreds of billions of dollars to be spent under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in November 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act signed in August. EPA first issued its framework for the assessment of environmental standards in 2015. -- Rick Weber (rweber@iwpnews.com)

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify Matt Klasen’s description of the EPA framework.

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