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March 14, 2023

EPA to restrict hazardous 'forever chemicals' in drinking water

Proposed regulations would require utilities to monitor – and reduce – PFAS levels. The compounds have been linked to various health conditions

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Forever Chemicals Water PFAS Colin Behrens/Pixabay

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed the first national limits on PFAS in drinking water. These so-called 'forever chemicals' have been linked to infertility, thyroid problems and several types of cancer.

The Environmental Protection Agency is considering the first nationwide drinking-water standards for PFAS, manmade chemicals that have been linked to an array of health issues. 

PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are used in many consumer items such as cosmetics and food packaging. They have been dubbed "forever chemicals" because they are hard to break down and tend to linger in the environment for years.

The EPA proposal, if finalized, would require water utilities to limit two of the most common PFAS – perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – to 4 parts per trillion. One part per trillion is equal to one drop of contaminant in 21 million gallons of water. 

These levels are not as strict as the advisory levels for safe consumption established last year by the EPA. But agency officials said they are the lowest levels at which the chemicals can be accurately measured and detected, the Washington Post reported

Studies suggest PFAS may be more harmful than previously thought. They have been found to weaken people's immune and cardiovascular systems at a lifetime exposure of just 0.004 to 0.02 parts per trillion. 

Forever chemicals also have been linked to infertility, thyroid problems and several types of cancer. Animal studies have shown that PFAS can cause low birth weight, birth defects, delayed development and newborn death.

The proposed regulations reportedly will force water utilities to invest millions of dollars to be in compliance. They would be required to notify residents – and reduce contamination – if PFAS levels exceed the standards. 

"This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants," EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said

The proposed regulations are stronger than those set by Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Pennsylvania's standards, established earlier this year, limit PFOS to 18 parts per trillion and PFOA to 14 parts per trillion. New Jersey restricts PFOS to 13 parts per trillion and PFOA to 14 parts per trillion.  

The National Association of Water Companies, based in Philadelphia, called on Congress to pass laws that ensure PFAS manufacturers are responsible for footing the bill to reduce PFAS contamination. 

"Make no mistake – addressing the PFAS in the nation's water supply will cost billions of dollars," said Robert F. Powelson, the organization's president. "It's a burden that under the current structure will disproportionately fall on water and wastewater customers in small communities and low-income families. Instead of coming from the pockets of water and wastewater customers and utilities, the polluters should be held directly responsible for the cleanup costs."

A 2016 health advisory set the PFAS limit much higher, at 70 parts per trillion. In addition to the newly proposed rules, the EPA is seeking to classify PFAS as hazardous chemicals, which means they cause either a physical or health hazard.

Because PFAS don't break down easily, they can be ever-present in contaminated drinking water, and build up in the bloodstream of people and animals. 

High levels of forever chemicals have been found in the bloodstreams of many suburban Philadelphia residents who are participating in a study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some participants' levels are so high that they have been advised to receive regular kidney cancer and ulcerative colitis screenings. 

U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Bucks County and the co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional PFAS Taskforce, called the proposed regulations "a step in the right direction as we work to prevent the future contamination of PFAS ... in our water."

PFAS chemicals have been used since the 1940s to make nonstick cookware, moisture-repellent fabrics and flame-retardant equipment, but the compounds that make these products so durable also linger in the environment and build up in the body. Pollution from factories or testing sites that use the chemicals can contaminate nearby groundwater. 

Firefighting foam used to stamp out flames often contains PFAS as well. Companies like DuPont and 3M have faced legal action for manufacturing the foam, as have military bases that use it.

Last year, 3M said it would stop producing and using the chemicals by the end of 2025. Because of the concerning health effects, many U.S. manufacturers have largely replaced PFAS chemicals with other fluorinated compounds. The two most popular, — GenX and PFBS — also have been linked to cancer even at relatively low levels. Under the EPA's new proposal, these alternative chemicals, as well as two other compounds, PFNA and PFHxS, also will be regulated, but at different standards.

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