Frequently Asked Questions
Note: EPA no longer updates this information, but it may be useful as a reference or resource.
- Why are PBTs a problem?
- How do PBTs harm us and the environment?
- What is EPA doing about it?
- Why is a strategy needed?
- How will EPA go about implementing these efforts?
- How will EPA make this strategy work?
- How will this strategy promote pollution prevention?
1. Why are PBTs a problem?
Persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic pollutants (PBTs) are long-lasting substances that can build up in the food chain to levels that are harmful to human and ecosystem health. These contaminants can be transported long distances and move readily from land to air and water. Because of their persistence and bioaccumulative properties, they do not break down easily and are particularly difficult to clean up. Many of these substances are human-made and have only been in existence for a relatively short period of history. Other of these substances are natural elements, such as mercury. It is the refinement and concentrated human use of these substances that creates the problem. EPA is concerned not only with historical PBT problem chemicals, such as DDT and PCBs, but also with PBT chemicals currently in production (such as mercury) and new chemicals with similar properties entering commerce today or in the future.
2. How do PBTs harm us and the environment?
PBTs are associated with a range of adverse human health effects, including effects on the nervous system and reproduction and development. PBTs have also been linked to cancer and genetic impacts. Particular risks may be posed to the developing fetus or young child in whom critical organs are still under development. Also, certain individuals who eat large amounts of fish from local waters contaminated with certain PBTs are at risk for adverse health effects. Birds and mammals at the top of the food chain also are at risk. The most famous example is the serious decline of the bald eagle in the 1960s because the fish they ate contained DDT. The DDT did not kill them or make them sick, but it did make their eggshells so thin it seriously threatened their ability to reproduce.
EPA has both international and domestic commitments to reduce releases and exposure from PBTs.
International commitments - For 12 high priority PBTs, the U.S. has made specific commitments to reduce releases and exposures nationally as part of the Canada-U.S. Binational Toxics Strategy. Additionally, the U.S. pledged to take several actions specific to the Great Lakes basin. For example, the U.S. pledged a 50% reduction in deliberate use of and release of mercury from human activity sources by 2006. For dioxin, the U.S. pledged to reduce releases from human activity sources by 75% by 2006. Furthermore, the U.S. pledged a 90% reduction of PCBs used in electrical equipment by 2006. A complete list of the commitments made in the Binational Toxics Strategy is provided in attachment B to the PBT Strategy. The Agency also plays an integral role in other international negotiations relating to PBTs, such as the UNEP Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for developing an international treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).
Domestic commitments - Domestically, EPA has been working for a number of years to reduce emissions and exposures from many PBT contaminants. We have banned or restricted use of certain PBT pesticides, such as DDT and chlordane. Manufacture of PCBs was banned by the Congress in 1977 and EPA has enforced the law and issued regulations on the proper disposal of used PCBs. In addition to our historic attention to these contaminants, EPA has recently issued a number of regulations that will result in further reductions of PBT pollutants such as mercury. For example, recent rules restricting emissions from municipal waste combustion facilities and medical waste incinerators will achieve over 90% mercury control when fully implemented. EPA will also issue a rule later this year which will control mercury emissions from several types of hazardous waste combustion facilities. EPA has also incorporated the goal of PBT reductions in its strategic plan and goals. For example, EPA will reduce priority PBTs in hazardous waste by 50% by 2005.
As outlined above, EPA has been working for a number of years to reduce emissions of and exposures to PBTs. To date, these actions have been largely separate regulatory activities aimed at different environmental media (air, water, or land). They need to be better coordinated to assure, for example, that regulations removing the PBTs from air do not result in just transferring pollution to land. In the past, the Agency has been criticized for not working in a multimedia fashion to prevent pollution and to approach these contaminants in a comprehensive manner. Developing an Agency-wide strategy enables EPA to harness all of its tools -- regulatory, voluntary, enforcement and compliance, and research -- and direct them at a set of priority pollutants of common concern to all EPA program offices.
As described above, EPA has developed the PBT Strategy to use all of its tools to address these problems comprehensively.
Immediate focus - The PBT Strategy targets the 12 PBT substances included in the Canada/U.S. Binational Toxics Strategys Level 1 list for immediate focus. EPA is in the process of developing national action plans to reduce emissions and exposure to these 12 substances. In addition, a number of near-term regulatory and programmatic actions are aimed at PBT reductions. For example, EPAs New Chemicals Program aims to prevent the introduction of new PBTs in commerce that may pose an unreasonable risk to human health and the environment. Accordingly, the Agency may find it appropriate to prohibit a company from manufacturing, importing, processing, distributing in commerce, using, or disposing of a substance in the U.S. pending the development of information necessary to evaluate the potential persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity of a chemical substance. Additionally, EPAs Community Right-to-Know program will add new PBTs and lower reporting thresholds for other PBTs on the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) so that the public can readily identify local emissions of these pollutants. EPA is also taking action aimed at reducing certain PBTs in hazardous waste by targeting PBT chemicals found in hazardous waste for voluntary waste minimization activities.
Longer-term focus - EPA realizes that the 12 Binational Toxics Strategy Level 1 substances are not the only PBTs we need to be concerned about. The strategy calls for developing a process to select additional pollutants of concern. Once these pollutants are selected, action plans will be developed to address environmental and human health problems associated with them. Other longer-term activities include identifying research needs for priority PBTs and measuring the results of our activities, preferably in terms of environmental and human health impacts.
EPA cannot do this alone. We will rely on close cooperation with our regulatory partners, the States and Tribal Nations, to carry out these shared priorities. We will need their "on the ground" input to ensure that local and regional PBT problems are adequately addressed. Additionally, EPA will be engaging in partnerships with industry, environmental groups, and the public and will strive to have a transparent process that fully involves stakeholders. We realize that long-term success will be based on cooperative efforts that are mutually beneficial.
The United States has made specific reduction commitments for certain priority PBTs that we will strive to meet using all our tools. We recognize, however, that because these pollutants are so harmful, it makes the most sense over the long term to prevent future contamination. A key tenet of this strategy is identifying prevention opportunities that benefit the environment and pay off economically. We will look for opportunities to promote cleaner technologies and substitutes. We will work with partners in industry to prevent pollution. Already, EPA and the American Hospital Association are working as partners to reduce mercury use in hospitals across the U.S. Similarly, the Chlor-alkali industry has pledged to voluntarily reduce its mercury emissions by 50%. And, the automobile manufacturing sector is moving to replace mercury-switches in auto lamps with a safer substitute. These types of activities in various sectors of the economy and in communities across the country will result in a "win-win" situation for the economy and the environment. And, most importantly, they will result in fewer PBT emissions and exposures to humans and the environment.
Some of the substances planned for immediate focus may not be readily amenable to prevention-based approaches. For example, banned pesticides and PCBs are already present in the environment because of past use. While prevention-based approaches are the preferred alternative, the Agency intends to use other types of risk management approaches (such as control, remediation, and treatment) where appropriate.