E.P.A. Will Study Limits on Cancer-Linked Chemicals. Critics Say the Plan Delays Action.

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WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday said it will start work by the end of the year on a long-awaited plan to set national drinking-water limits for two harmful chemicals linked to cancer, low infant birth weight and other health issues.

But environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers criticized the plan, saying it in effect delayed desperately needed regulation on a clear public health threat from chemicals that are commonly used in cookware, pizza boxes, stain repellents and fire retardants.

E.P.A. officials described their proposal as the “first-ever nationwide action plan” to address the health effects of human-made chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs. There currently no federal regulations on the production or monitoring of that class of about 5,000 chemicals, which are manufactured and used in a wide variety of industries and products. Studies have shown that they can linger in the human body for years, causing harmful health impacts.

“The PFAS action plan is the most comprehensive action plan for a chemical of concern ever undertaken by the agency,” said Dave Ross, E.P.A.’s assistant administrator for water, in a telephone call with reporters on Thursday. Andrew Wheeler, the E.P.A.’s acting administrator, who is now President Trump’s nominee to head the agency, called the plan a “pivotal moment in the history of the agency.”

The American Chemistry Council, an industry lobbying group, voiced support for the plan. “We continue to support strong national leadership in addressing PFAS and firmly believe that E.P.A. is best positioned to provide the public with a comprehensive strategy informed by a full understanding of the safety and benefits of different PFAS chemistries,” it said in a statement.

Critics called on the agency to move more quickly, citing 2016 action by the Obama administration on two of the chemicals that suggested the urgency of the risk.

“While E.P.A. acts with the utmost urgency to repeal regulations, the agency ambles with complacency when it comes to taking real steps to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe,” said Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment Committee.

After a public outcry over tests showing dangerous levels of PFASs in communities around the United States, particularly around military bases and fire stations, the E.P.A. under the Obama administration in 2016 proposed creating a national standard for limiting the levels in drinking water of two of the most prevalent varieties of PFAS chemicals, known as PFOA and PFOS.

It also issued a health advisory recommending that water utilities and public health officials monitor levels of the two chemicals in public water supplies, and notify the public if the combined levels of those chemicals reached 70 parts per trillion. A draft report released last year by the Department of Health and Human Services recommended that the “minimal risk level” for exposure to those two chemicals should be less than half that amount.

Given the available data on the effect of PFAS chemicals, environmentalists criticized the E.P.A.’s response as inadequate to the threat.

Scott Faber, an expert on chemical policy with the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, called it a “drinking water crisis facing millions of Americans.” But the E.P.A., he said, is “just not treating the crisis the way it deserves.”

In particular, critics of the E.P.A. have sited the role of Nancy Beck, a former lobbyist with the American Chemistry Council, in a slowdown of the agency’s response to addressing PFASs.

Last May, Scott Pruitt, the previous administrator of the E.P.A., convened a summit aimed at addressing the threat of PFAS chemicals, an announced that, as a first step, the E.P.A. would decide whether to set a national drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS. Mr. Wheeler said Thursday that the agency intends to act quickly to begin that regulatory process.

“Our goal is to close the gap on the science as quickly as possible,” he said, adding that the agency is also looking into technology to clean or reduce PFAS chemicals from drinking water.

But Mr. Wheeler did not offer a clear timeline of when such a standard might be completed. Such regulatory processes can often take years.

Mr. Carper suggested that the E.P.A.’s failure to provide a clear timeline on completing the standard could influence the outcome of Mr. Wheeler’s Senate confirmation vote to lead the E.P.A., although given the Republican majority in the Senate, his confirmation is still likely assured.

“I urge Mr. Wheeler to reverse course and treat this public health threat with the urgency it deserves,” Mr. Carper said. “And I ask my colleagues in the Senate to take note of Mr. Wheeler’s lack of urgency in addressing this threat as they consider his nomination to be E.P.A.’s permanent administrator.”

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