EPA has proposed first-ever federal limits on forever chemicals

EPA Administrator Michael S Regan

EPA Administrator Michael S Regan

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed the first-ever federal limits on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the country’s drinking water.

PFAS, commonly known as “forever chemicals”, have been linked to health problems like low birth weight and kidney cancer, and do not naturally degrade in the environment, making them expensive to remove from water.

The proposal is aimed at limiting these chemicals and is estimated to reduce PFAS exposure for almost 100 million Americans.

The proposal, subject to public comment before a final rule is issued, would set limits of four parts per trillion, the lowest level that can be reliably measured, for two common types of PFAS compounds: perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanoicsulfonic acid, also known as PFOA and PFOS, respectively. The EPA also wants to regulate the combined amount of four other types of PFAS.

“Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are man-made chemicals resistant to heat, water, and oil but they persist in the environment & human body. They have been linked to cancer and other life threatening diseases,” said New Jersey environmentalist Lisa McCormick. “Clean water is a non-negotiable right so we must continually fight to protect communities from toxic PFAS chemicals and to allow people exposed to those chemicals to get regular medical monitoring to detect associated health problems early.”

“PFAS chemicals are a toxic threat to the drinking water and the health of countless communities around the United States,” said McCormick. “PFAS are widely used in consumer products and at military and industrial sites. More than 100 million people have PFAS contaminated drinking water.”

Radhika Fox, assistant EPA administrator for water, called the proposal a “transformational change” and said, “the science is clear that long-term exposure to PFAS is linked to significant health risks”. Environmental and public health advocates have been calling for federal regulation of PFAS chemicals for years, but the EPA had not previously imposed mandatory limits on water providers.

The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators welcomed the proposal, calling it “a step in the right direction”, but noted compliance would be challenging. Despite the availability of federal money, “significant rate increases will be required for most of the systems” that must remove PFAS, the group said.

The proposal would also regulate other types of PFAS like GenX chemicals, which manufacturers used as substitutes when PFOA and PFOS were phased out of consumer products. The proposal would regulate the cumulative health threat of those compounds and mandate treatment if that threat is too high.

Robert Wendelgass, president of the environmental group Clean Water Action, said the EPA proposal “will prevent serious illness and death”. However, he urged the agency to be “equally decisive in holding polluters accountable for contaminated drinking water all over the country and in curtailing the many thousand PFAS chemicals in everyday use”.

Some critics have also raised concerns about the proposal, saying it would unfairly target utility providers, who would face significant rate increases to remove PFAS from water systems. Communities would need to balance the new PFAS requirements with other public health concerns, like removing poisonous lead pipes and replacing aged water mains prone to rupturing.

The EPA recently made $2bn available to states to get rid of contaminants such as PFAS and will release billions more in coming years. The agency is also providing technical support to smaller communities that will soon be forced to install treatment systems, and there is funding in the 2021 infrastructure law for water system upgrades.

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