The Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement of four strict advisories for when levels of “forever chemicals” known as PFAS in drinking water can harm human health are welcome, but also justify calls for the agency to move faster on regulating PFAS, environmentalists say.
The non-binding, non-regulatory advisory levels, announced Wednesday, provide information to state agencies and others on drinking water contamination. The advisories identify levels of PFAS in drinking water to protect people from harm after a lifetime of exposure to the chemicals.
The EPA set updated interim updated lifetime health advisories (LHAs) for PFOA and PFOS – two of the most notorious PFAS – and set final health advisories for the PFAS GenX and PFBS.
The advisory for PFOA is 0.004 parts per trillion (ppt) and 0.02 ppt for PFOS, significantly stricter than the agency’s previous advisory from 2016, set at 70 ppt for PFOA and PFOS combined.
The final GenX health advisory is 10 ppt, and for PFBS the final health advisory is 2,000 ppt.
“The updated advisory levels, which are based on new science and consider lifetime exposure, indicate that some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero and below EPA’s ability to detect at this time,” the agency said.
Environmentalists offered support for the decision to issue stringent health advisories, but they also say the levels highlight the health risks of PFAS exposure that need quick regulation.
“Today’s announcement should set off alarm bells for consumers and regulators,” said Melanie Benesh, legislative attorney with the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which has long advocated faster federal regulation of PFAS. “These proposed advisory levels demonstrate that we must move much faster to dramatically reduce exposures to these toxic chemicals.”
The chemical industry, however, argues that the scientific review approach the EPA used in developing the four advisories is flawed, and premature given ongoing research into the toxicity of PFAS.
The EPA has said it plans by the end of 2023 to set a mandatory, enforceable drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS. The standard is part of a broader range of actions that the agency announced in its “Strategic Roadmap” for tackling the widespread problem of PFAS.
PFAS as known as forever chemicals because they do not break down. They are very toxic, even at low levels, and they have been linked with serious health harms, such as damage to the reproductive system, an increased risk of developing cancer, and other effects.
The chemicals have been used for many years in a wide range of consumer goods, providing grease-, stain- and water-repellent coatings. PFAS are also used for industrial applications, and in firefighting foam that has resulted in contamination at military bases where it was used.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a statement reiterated the plan to issue the PFOA and PFOS drinking water standard, saying the proposed version is due this fall.
“As EPA develops this proposed rule, the agency is also evaluating additional PFAS beyond PFOA and PFOS and considering actions to address groups of PFAS. The interim health advisories will provide guidance to states, Tribes, and water systems for the period prior to the regulation going into effect,” according to the EPA’s announcement.
Regan in the statement also touted other actions in the PFAS roadmap, and new funding for efforts to tackle the chemicals. “People on the front-lines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long. That’s why EPA is taking aggressive action as part of a whole-of-government approach to prevent these chemicals from entering the environment and to help protect concerned families from this pervasive challenge,” he said.
Alongside the health advisories, the EPA will provide $1 billion in grants to tackle PFAS, using funds from the bipartisan infrastructure law that President Joe Biden signed last year. The grants will also be used to address emerging contaminants like PFAS in drinking water in small or disadvantaged communities, for example by funding water quality testing and treatment.
Radhika Fox, EPA’s assistant administrator for water, also announced the PFAS advisories on the first day of the June 15-17 National PFAS Meeting in Wilmington, North Carolina.
‘Whack-a-mole’ response to PFAS
Following the EPA’s announcement, EWG’s Benesh reiterated calls for the agency to accelerate its PFAS regulatory actions. “The EPA must move quickly to set limits on industrial discharges of PFAS into the air and water, require testing for sludge that may be contaminated with PFAS, immediately designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under our federal cleanup laws, and properly dispose of PFAS wastes,” she said.
In addition to EWG, other environmental groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), argued that the advisories justify quicker, broader regulation from the EPA.
“The science is clear: these chemicals are shockingly toxic at extremely low doses. EPA’s new health advisories for PFOA, PFOS, and GenX reflect this robust science and will send a welcome signal that government and industry must do more to protect public health,” said Erik Olson, NRDC’s senior strategic director for health and food. “EPA has had to continuously fight polluters and opponents of any meaningful action on PFAS. But we cannot continue taking a ‘whack-a-mole’ approach to the ever-expanding avalanche of 12,000 PFAS chemicals.”
Olson reiterated NRDC’s support for regulating all PFAS as a single class of chemicals through binding, enforceable standards. “Any other approach will leave every one of us at risk from these forever toxics for decades to come,” he said.
Chemical industry’s concerns
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) said it welcomes PFAS drinking water standards that are “based on the best available science,” but argued the EPA’s four advisories fail to meet the agency’s scientific integrity practices.
“ACC is concerned that the process for development of these LHAs is fundamentally flawed. We will continue to engage with EPA and policymakers at the state and federal level to advocate for strong, science-based policies that are protective of human health and the environment,” the chemical industry group said.
“The Agency’s revised LHAs for PFOA and PFOS are based on toxicity assessments that are currently being reviewed by EPA’s Science Advisory Board. Rather than wait for the outcome of this peer review, EPA has announced new Advisories that are 3,000 to 17,000 times lower than those released by the Obama Administration in 2016. These new levels cannot be achieved with existing treatment technology and, in fact, are below levels that can be reliably detected using existing EPA methods,” according to the statement.