The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation Friday aimed at forcing federal environmental regulators to act more aggressively on PFAS contamination, including a provision requiring designation of the so-called “forever chemicals” as hazardous substances.

Despite growing bipartisan alarm about the health risks posed by the widely used chemicals, the Republican-controlled Senate has yet to consider a similar PFAS bill and the White House has already threatened to veto the House measure because of cost and litigation concerns.

The bill, which passed on a 247-159 vote, would require the Environmental Protection Agency to designate two specific varieties of the chemical, PFOS and PFOA, as hazardous substances within a year, thereby making contamination sites eligible for federal Superfund cleanup funds.

The legislation also would require testing of drinking water supplies, mandate that the federal government adopt a “maximum contaminant level” for PFAS in water, impose a moratorium on federal approval of additional use of PFAS in many products, require companies to disclose the release of PFAS in wastewater, and provide federal funds for research, cleanup and mitigation.

The House vote comes as many states, including Maine, are scrambling to adopt their own PFAS regulations because of slow action at the federal level. Maine’s PFAS Task Force recently recommended requiring all community water systems to test for the chemicals and fire departments to notify the state when PFAS-laced firefighting foams are used.

Maine’s two House members, Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, were co-sponsors of the House bill.

Pingree successfully added language allowing carpet and furniture manufacturers to label their PFAS-free products as a “Safer Choice” under an EPA labeling program. Pingree, whose district includes high-profile PFAS contamination sites at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station and an Arundel dairy farm, said the federal delay on the chemicals “has been inexcusable.”

“My amendment would expand the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice label to additional household products, including carpet, rugs, clothing, and upholstered furniture certified not to contain PFAS,” Pingree said in a statement. “This change will prompt manufacturers to develop safer alternatives and help consumers find and buy healthier products. Consumers have the right to know what harmful chemicals are in their homes and should have the ability to choose products that keep their families and the environment safe.”

Golden successfully added language that would require the EPA and other federal agencies to report annually to Congress on efforts to protect firefighters from health risks from PFAS exposure.

“Folks in our state have been harmed by ‘forever chemicals’ for years now,” Golden said in a statement. “Maine is taking decisive action to protect our citizens, but the federal government has repeatedly failed to do its part. That would change with the legislation we passed today. This bill will attack the PFAS problem at its sources, while also providing funds to clean up sites that have already been contaminated.”

The per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances commonly known as PFAS are a family of chemicals that create high-tech coatings for a wide variety of household products, such as nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpeting, and waterproof attire and footwear. PFAS also are a key ingredient in the foam that firefighters use to extinguish intense fuel fires at airports, petroleum facilities and some accident scenes.

Yet the complex chemical characteristics that make PFAS so popular in modern products mean the substances do not break down easily in the environment or the body, hence the term “forever chemicals.” And a growing body of studies has linked some varieties of the chemicals – particularly PFOS and PFOA – to cancer, thyroid disorders, endocrine disruption, low birth weight and other health problems.

“Sadly, some big corporations and the EPA have known about the risk from PFAS chemicals for decades, but they have failed to prevent the spread of contamination,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said during a floor speech before Friday’s vote. “The Trump administration’s EPA is breaking its own promises every day that it delays and puts polluters ahead of the American people.”

There has been activity at the federal level on PFAS, including an EPA proposal that would add the substances to the list of chemicals that entities must report discharging as part of the Toxic Release Inventory. The Department of Defense also is addressing contamination on or near military bases.

Additionally, a defense budget bill that passed Congress last month requires the Pentagon to phase out use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam except on ships. But numerous provisions contained in the PFAS Action Act of 2019 passed by the House on Friday were stripped out of that defense budget bill during House-Senate negotiations.

It is unclear when, or if, the Republican-controlled Senate would take up the House bill or a less-sweeping version introduced in that chamber.

On Tuesday, the White House announced that it “strongly opposes” the House bill on grounds that it supersedes EPA authority, creates litigation concerns and would be costly to implement.

“The regulatory process works best when EPA and other agencies are free to devise regulations based on the best available science and careful consideration of all the relevant facts,” the White House said in a statement. “By truncating the rulemaking process, this legislation risks undermining public confidence in the EPA’s decisions, and also risks the imposition of unnecessary costs on states, public water systems, and others responsible for complying with its prescriptive mandates.”

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