The US Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed the first national drinking water standard for “forever chemicals” that are dangerous to human health. The move could radically affect drinking water for nearly everyone in the United States.
The new rule intends to 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 linger in the environment and the human body, where they can cause serious health problems.
Although there are thousands of PFAS chemicals, according to the National Institutes of Health, under the rule, water systems would have to monitor for six specific chemicals, notify the public about PFAS levels and work to reduce them if levels go above the standard allowed.
“I am thrilled to announce that EPA is taking yet another bold step to protect public health,” said US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan at a news conference on Tuesday in Wilmington, North Carolina. “Folks, this is a tremendous step forward in the right direction. We anticipate that when fully implemented, this rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS related illnesses.”
Regan said the proposed rule would protect the health of people for generations. He characterized PFAS contamination as “one of the most pressing environmental and public health concerns in the modern world.”
The agency chose these chemicals because it has the clearest science about their impact on human health and said it is evaluating additional chemicals, as well.
The EPA’s proposed limits set the allowable levels for these chemicals so low that they could not be easily detected.
The proposal would regulate two chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, at 4 parts per trillion (ppt). For PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and GenX chemicals, the EPA proposes not one standard for each but a limit for a mix of them.
Water systems would have to determine whether the levels of these PFAS pose a potential risk. They may need to install treatment or take other action to reduce PFAS levels, the agency said, and systems may also even need to switch to different water sources.
Found in homes across the country
The proposal would be one of the first new chemical standards that updates the Safe Drinking Water Act since 1996. The proposed standards would be much stricter than the EPA suggested in 2016, when its health advisories recommended PFAS concentrations in drinking water of no more than 70 ppt.
In June, based on the latest science, the EPA issued health advisories that said the chemicals are much more hazardous to human health than scientists originally thought and are probably more dangerous even at levels thousands of times lower than previously believed.
EPA Commissioner Regan established the EPA Council on PFAS as soon as he came into office in 2021.
“Despite previous administration’s anti-science stance which severely strained EPA financial and human capital, I charged this council with undertaking a comprehensive review of the problem and identifying solutions that we can implement immediately,” Regan said.
In October 2021, the EPA released its PFAS strategic roadmap. In November, the EPA shared a one-year progress report and set an internal deadline to propose this rule by the end of last year, but the proposal was going through an interagency review.
Now that the proposed rule is out, it will be open to a period of public comment. The EPA will take those comments into consideration and issue 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 widely used since the 1940s in hundreds of kinds of common household items, where they help repel water and oil. They can be found in water-repellent clothes, furniture and carpet, in nonstick pans, paints, cosmetics, cleaning products and food packaging, and in firefighting foams.
The extremely strong elemental bonds that make the chemicals repel oil and water also make it difficult for them to break down in the body or in the environment.
A 2019 study suggested that PFAS chemicals could be found in 98% of the US population.
The chemicals can primarily settle in the blood, kidney and liver, and exposure can lead to serious health problems like cancer, obesity, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, decreased fertility, liver damage and hormone suppression, according to the EPA.
Last year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued guidelines for doctors to test, diagnose and treat the millions of people who have a history of elevated exposure to these chemicals.
Attempts at regulation
Manufacturing of PFAS chemicals has already started to change.
Manufacturer 3M recently announced it would stop making them by the end of 2025. The American Chemistry Council, an association that represents chemical makers, said that PFOA and PFOS were phased out of production by its members more than eight years ago. “We support restrictions on their use globally, and we support drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS based on the best available science,” the council said in an email to CNN. It does, however, say it that has “serious concerns” about the science that the EPA used to create the rule that it calls “conservative.”
At the federal level, the US 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 items that came into contact with food. However, FDA monitoring of the environment showed that the chemicals tend to linger, as the “forever” name implies.
A replacement that many chemical companies have been using, GenX, may also be problematic, according to the EPA. Animal studies have shown that it may affect the liver, kidneys and immune system, and it might be linked to cancer.
In June, for the first time, the EPA issued final advisories for limits in drinking water of GenX, considered a replacement for PFOA, and PFBS, a replacement for PFOS: less than 10 ppt and 2,000 ppt, respectively.
The Biden administration has taken some steps to help eliminate exposure to this pollution. As a part of the 2022 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, $10 billion was made available for cleanup of contaminants like PFAS in drinking water.
In February, the EPA also announced $2 billion available to address contaminants like PFAS in drinking water in small, rural and disadvantaged communities. Regan said the Biden administration is asking Congress for more resources to clean up PFAS pollution.
Environmental groups applaud move
Tuesday’s announcement “is really 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 a lot of communities that have been exposed to these chemicals for decades.
“It’s clear that these chemicals are toxic at very low levels and the EPA is responding to that risk, and I think this is a huge win for public health,” she added.
A new rule, paired with actual resources to clean up contamination and to make sure communities can test for these chemicals, is an important step, said Sarah Doll, national director of Safer States, a group that works to help communities prevent harm caused by dangerous chemicals.
“We also need the polluters, those who actually caused the harm, to help pay for the cleanup,” Doll said. Seventeen state attorneys general and others are suing now several makers and users of these chemicals. “This is a first step. It’s great. It’s really important, and we’re going to need additional resources, especially from those who have caused harm.”
With the proposed rule, the EPA is catching 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’re very excited 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 that advocates for the use of safer products and chemicals.
But no EPA water standard is going to solve the problem on its own. Manufacturers of items that use these chemicals will need to urgently find alternatives.
“We’ll keep polluting our drinking water if we don’t stop the uses of these chemicals,” Hitchcock said.
The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA), which represents the country’s largest publicly owned water utilities in the US, said it is reviewing the proposed rule to assess the analysis the EPA used to determine what to regulate and at what levels. It critcized the shorter, 60-day timeframe for public comment, saying that the federal government’s Office of Management and Budget had five months to review the proposed rule that comes with thousands of pages to review and is a complex piece of regulation.
“AMWA intends to provide EPA a robust set of comments to help strengthen the rule and ensure decisions are made with the best available science while taking costs into account, as required under the Safe Drinking Water Act,” said Tom Dobbins, CEO of AMWA.
Dobbins added that the association is concerned about the overall operating and maintanance cost and quantified capital that drinking water utilities will have to take on to comply with the proposal, which the EPA estimates will be $772 million, according to the association.
The AMWA said it will be working with experts to determine if the EPA’s cost benefit analysis is accurate.
“Ultimately, without more federal support for upgrading current treatment technologies, average Americans will have to pay the cost of further treatment through higher rates for their water,” Dobbins added.
Users will also have to reduce demand. In one instance, the US Department of Defense has set a schedule to get PFAS out of firefighting foam by October and to stop use of it by October 2024. Hundreds of military properties have been contaminated by foam used to put out jet fuel 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 have been shown to be effective at removing PFAS from water, the EPA says.