The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency is located in Washington, DC, USA, January 19, 2020.
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters
Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed the first nationwide restrictions on so-called “forever chemicals” in drinking water after finding that the compounds are more dangerous than previously known — even at undetectable levels.
The chemicals, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been voluntarily phased out by US manufacturers. However, they are resistant to decomposition in the environment and can persist in the human body when consumed. As a result, most people in the US have been exposed to PFAS and have these chemicals in their blood, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since the 1940s, the chemicals have been used to make waterproof, adhesive, and stain-resistant products and can be found in food packaging, tableware, clothing, and firefighting foam, among other things. These chemicals have been linked to health problems, including some cancers, liver damage and low birth weight.
Environmental Working Group, environmental organization, found 41,828 industrial and municipal sites known to be producing, using, or suspected of using PFAS, with some of the highest levels found in the cities of Miami, New Orleans, and Philadelphia.
EPA’s proposed standards cover six PFASs that contaminate the nation’s drinking water sources. The proposal would regulate PFOA and PFOS as individual contaminants and regulate four other PFAS chemicals—PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX—as a mixture.
For PFOA and PFOS, the agency proposed a binding limit for drinking water of four parts per trillion per chemical. And for the rest, the EPA proposed a binding limit based on a hazard index designed to address the cumulative impact of chemicals.
The agency said it expects to finalize the regulation by the end of the year. The EPA said the rule, if fully implemented, would prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of illnesses caused by PFAS.
“Communities across this country have suffered for too long from the ever-present threat of PFAS pollution,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “EPA’s proposal to create a national standard for PFAS in drinking water is based on the best available science and would help give states the guidance they need to make the decisions that best protect their communities.”
The regulation would also require public water systems to monitor the chemicals, notify the public and reduce PFAS contamination if levels exceed the proposed regulatory standards.
“Today’s proposal is a necessary and long overdue step to address the nation’s PFAS crisis, but what comes next is just as important,” said Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz, attorney at Earthjustice.
“EPA must resist efforts to weaken this proposal, move quickly to finalize health limits for these six chemicals, and address the remaining PFASs that continue to poison drinking water supplies and harm communities across the country,” said Kalmuss-Katz.
The EPA was first alerted to the presence of PFAS in drinking water in 2001, but over the years it has failed to establish a statewide legal limit. Last year, the agency issued a health advisory that set health risk thresholds for chemicals close to zero, replacing guidance from 2016 that set a higher threshold.
Representatives of U.S. chemical companies, such as the American Chemistry Council, opposed the Biden administration’s designation of PFAS chemicals as hazardous and dangerous. argued that the rule is costly and ineffective.
Agency last year as well invited states and territories request $1 billion in a bipartisan infrastructure act to address PFAS in drinking water, specifically in disadvantaged communities. Grant funding will provide technical assistance, water quality testing, supplier training and installation of centralized technology and treatment systems.