EPA proposes first standards to make drinking water safer from “forever chemicals.”


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed the first national drinking water standard for “forever chemicals” dangerous to human health. The move could radically affect drinking water for almost everyone in the United States.

The new rule would set drinking water standards for six per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, or “Forever Chemicals.” PFAS are a family of ubiquitous synthetic chemicals that persist in the environment and in the human body, where they can cause serious health problems.

Although there are thousands of PFAS chemicals, according to the National Institutes of Health, the rule would require water systems to monitor six specific chemicals, notify the public of PFAS levels, and work to reduce them when levels go above the allowable standard.

The EPA says the proposal would prevent thousands of deaths from exposure to these chemicals, as well as tens of thousands of serious illnesses. The agency chose these chemicals because it has the clearest scientific evidence about their effects on human health, and said it was also evaluating other chemicals.

The EPA’s proposed limits set the allowable levels for these chemicals so low that they cannot be easily detected.

The proposal would regulate two chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, to 4 parts per trillion (ppt). For PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX chemicals, the EPA does not propose a standard for each, but rather a limit for a mixture of them.

Water systems would need to determine if levels of these PFAS posed a potential risk. They may need to install treatment or take other measures to reduce PFAS levels, the agency said, and systems may even need to be switched to other water sources.

The proposal would be one of the first new chemical standards updating the Safe Drinking Water Act since 1996. The proposed standards would be much stricter than the EPA, which proposed in 2016 when its health advice recommended PFAS concentrations in drinking water of no more than 70 ppt.

In June, the EPA issued health advice based on the latest scientific evidence, saying the chemicals are far more dangerous to human health than scientists initially thought and are likely more dangerous, even at levels thousands of times lower than previously accepted.

The EPA had set an internal deadline to propose this rule by late last year, but the proposal was subject to interagency scrutiny. Now that the proposed rule has expired, it will be open to public comment for a period. EPA will consider those comments and make a final decision on the rule, expected later this year.

Public water systems generally have three years from the date of the regulation to comply, the agency said.

The chemicals have been used in hundreds of household items since the 1940s to repel water and oil. They are found in water-repellent clothing, furniture and carpets, in non-stick pans, paints, cosmetics, cleaning products and food packaging, and in fire-fighting foams.

The extremely strong elemental bonds that make the chemicals oil and water repellent also make them difficult to break down in the body or in the environment.

A 2007 study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that PFAS chemicals could be found in 98% of the US population.

The chemicals can build up primarily in the blood, kidneys, and liver, and exposure can lead to serious health problems, including cancer, obesity, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, reduced fertility, liver damage, and hormone suppression, according to the EPA.

Last year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released guidelines for physicians to test, diagnose, and treat the millions of people who have been exposed to these chemicals in the past.

In the last decade, chemical manufacturers have stopped producing PFOS and PFOA.

At the federal level, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration phased out the use of certain PFAS chemicals in 2016. The FDA and manufacturers also agreed in 2020 to phase out some PFAS chemicals from food packaging and other food contact items. However, FDA monitoring of the environment showed that the chemicals tend to linger, as the name “forever” suggests.

A replacement that many chemical companies are using, GenX, could also be problematic, according to the EPA. Animal studies have shown that it affects the liver, kidneys and immune system and may be linked to cancer.

In June, for the first time, the EPA issued definitive recommendations for drinking water limits for GenX, considered a surrogate for PFOA, and PFBS, a surrogate for PFOS: less than 10 ppt and 2,000 ppt, respectively.

The Biden administration has taken some steps to eliminate exposure to this pollution. As part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act 2022, $10 billion has been allocated to clean up contaminants like PFAS in drinking water.

In February, the EPA also announced that $2 billion will be available to address contaminants such as PFAS in drinking water in small, rural and disadvantaged communities.

The American Chemistry Council, an association that represents chemical manufacturers, said PFOA and PFOS were phased out by its members more than eight years ago. “We support restrictions on their use worldwide, and we support drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS based on the best available science,” the council said in an email to CNN. But it says it has “serious concerns” about the science the EPA used to create the rule, which it calls “conservative.”

Tuesday’s announcement “is truly historic and long overdue,” said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, an environmental research and advocacy group. “There are many communities that have been exposed to these chemicals for decades.

“It is clear that these chemicals are toxic in very small amounts and the EPA is responding to this risk, and I think this is a huge public health win,” she added.

A new rule, coupled with actual resources to clean up contamination and ensure communities can test these chemicals, is an important step, said Sarah Doll, national director of Safer States, a group working to help communities Prevent damage from hazardous chemicals.

“We also need the polluters who actually caused the damage to pay for the clean-up,” said Doll. Seventeen Attorneys General and others are now suing several manufacturers and users of these chemicals. “This is a first step. It is great. It’s really important, and we’re going to need additional resources, especially from those who caused damage.”

With the proposed rule, EPA is catching up with up to 10 states that have enforceable drinking water standards for these chemicals: Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

“We are very pleased that the administration is taking these steps forward. They represent a very positive step in the right direction,” said Liz Hitchcock, Director of federal policy for Toxic-Free Future, a group advocating the use of safer products and chemicals.

But no EPA water standard alone will solve the problem. Manufacturers of items using these chemicals urgently need to find alternatives.

“We will continue to pollute our drinking water if we don’t stop using these chemicals,” Hitchcock said.

Users also have to curb demand. In one instance, the US Department of Defense has set a timeline to remove PFAS from firefighting foam by October and phase out its use by October 2024. Hundreds of military properties have been contaminated by foam used to extinguish kerosene fires.

The proposal is now open for public comment before the standards are finalized.

People who want to make their water safer in the meantime can use point-of-entry or point-of-use filters with activated carbon or reverse osmosis membranes, which have been shown to be effective at removing PFAS from water, according to the EPA .

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