The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday proposed national standards aimed at reducing levels of six harmful chemicals in drinking water. The move was applauded by health and environmental advocates who say the action is long overdue.
The agency said in a press release that if the rule is implemented it will “over time, prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses.”
The EPA action is part of a larger government move to respond to scientific evidence showing that certain types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are associated with a range of health problems, including a heightened risk of developing cancer, birth defects, liver disease, thyroid disease, decreased immunity, hormone disruption and a range of other serious health problems. PFAS have become nearly ubiquitous in the environment, including in water sources.
The new standards target six types of PFAS. For PFOA and PFOS – types known to be particularly dangerous to human health – the agency said the new rule would require public water systems to ensure levels of PFOA and PFOS do not exceed a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of four parts per trillion (ppt). Additionally, the EPA would require public water providers to use a hazard index calculation to determine if combined levels of PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX Chemicals pose a potential risk.
“Today we can celebrate a huge victory for public health in this country – US EPA is finally moving forward to protect drinking water across the United States by proposing federally-enforceable limits on some of the most toxic, persistent, and bioaccumulative chemicals ever found in our nation’s drinking water supply,” US attorney Rob Bilott said in a statement. Bilott has been calling for the EPA to address PFAS in US drinking water since 2001.
“It has taken far too long to get to this point, but the scientific facts and truth about the health threat posed by these man-made poisons have finally prevailed over the decades of corporate cover-ups and misinformation campaigns designed to mislead the public and delay action,” added Bilott.
If finalized, all public drinking water systems will be required to monitor for all six PFAS chemicals and to notify the public and reduce PFAS levels if they exceed the standards.
“It’s not surprising that [EPA under the Biden administration] is doing it,” said Phil Brown, co-director of the PFAS Project Lab at Northeastern University and co-principal investigator of a PFAS research and education project at the Silent Spring Institute, in response to the drinking water standards announcement. “Everyone wishes it had happened a long time ago,” he added.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents the interests of more than 190 chemical companies, called the EPA’s approach “misguided,” and said the new low limits would “likely result in billions of dollars in compliance costs.”
The ACC said it had “serious concerns with the underlying science” used to develop the proposed MCLs, and said the agency was violating its own guidance by combining substances affecting different health endpoints into a single index.
“The proposals have important implications for broader drinking water policy priorities and resources, so it’s critical that EPA gets the science right,” the ACC said in a statement.
The EPA is currently requesting input on the proposal from the public, water system managers, and public health professionals.
The six chemicals addressed by the new standards are just a few of the thousands of PFAS chemicals.
“We would hope to see something more like a class-based MCL from the EPA as opposed to levels for one chemical or a half dozen chemicals at a time,” said Alissa Cordner, co-director of the PFAS Project Lab at Northeastern University.
Brown said that while he expects it will be a long time before EPA regulates PFAS chemicals as a class, states may continue leading the way forward with bans on PFAS-containing products.
“That’s the closest thing so far to a class-based approach,” he said.
Maine, for example, will ban the sale of products with intentionally-added PFAS beginning in 2030.
No previous enforceable standards
The agency move comes almost nine months after the EPA issued interim updated lifetime health advisories of 0.004 ppt for PFOA and 0.02 ppt for PFOS, replacing the much less stringent 2016 health advisories of 70 ppt for both chemicals.
The EPA has been aware for decades that PFAS present health risks but the agency has not previously set enforceable regulations on these chemicals in drinking water.
“The fact that PFAS are such a very clear priority for this administration and still the process takes so long suggests that there are larger structural challenges that the agency faces in trying to take action that is both public health-protective and timely,” said Cordner.
However, many states have taken their own steps to set drinking water standards. As of July 2022, 21 states had proposed or adopted drinking water limits for PFAS.
The agency plans to finalize the new standards by the end of 2023. The agency said it is also evaluating other PFAS chemicals and considering how to regulate groups of PFAS.
PFAS chemicals are man-made compounds that have been used for decades in wide-ranging products, including electronics, fire-fighting foams, cleaning products and non-stick cookware.
Scientists have found that PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” degrade slowly in the environment and build up in the body over time – qualities that make them more dangerous.
A report issued last month found that 330 wildlife species around the world have been contaminated with PFAS. An estimated 97% of Americans contain PFAS in their blood and the chemicals have been found in many US drinking water systems. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently reported that at least 18% of the water systems in six selected states were contaminated with PFAS chemicals above the EPA’s health advisory levels.
Holding polluters responsible
Cordner said available technologies should make it possible for drinking water systems of all sizes to clean their water to meet EPA’s new standards for PFOA and PFOS. However, she doesn’t think communities should have to foot the bill.
“The costs of remediation will be significant, and that points to the need to hold polluters responsible as opposed to turning those costs over to residents and municipalities,” said Cordner.
Small towns have faced costs of $5 million to $20 million to meet prior PFAS guidelines, according to Brown.
“They’re now going to turn around and have to meet the actual MCLs. They’re going to need help – financial help, and also expertise, because not every water system has that capacity,” Brown said.
An estimated 4% to 12% of water providers nationally will need to treat for PFOS and PFOA if the EPA rule is finalized, according to a widely-reported analysis conducted for the American Water Works Association (AWWA), a nonprofit and industry lobbying organization. In a PFAS briefing, AWWA estimated that potential costs to remove PFOA and PFOS from drinking water could potentially exceed $38 billion.
Cordner said that further PFAS use should be halted in “virtually all situations.”
“[The US should be] severely limiting the broad uses of PFAS in many different applications, and then in those use categories where there currently isn’t a replacement available, really dedicating resources to finding [replacements],” said Cordner.