EPA Issues New 'Forever Chemical' Limits in Drinking Water

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that up to 10% of the 66,000 public drinking water systems subject to the new limits may be required to take steps to reduce PFAS.

On April 10, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the first legally enforceable drinking water standard for harmful per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

PFAS are often referred to as "forever chemicals" because they do not break down easily and exist in the environment for decades or more. They also remain in people exposed to them for extended periods. Forever chemicals are linked to cancer, thyroid hormone disruption, and immune system dysfunction.

Nearly 50% of public water sources are estimated to contain these compounds. Moreover, EPA data shows that PFAS levels in some locations exceed the agency's Health Advisory level by more than 300%.

In March 2023, the EPA proposed a national drinking water standard to address the potential dangers of forever chemicals. The agency issued today's final rule after analyzing scientific research on the public health impacts of PFAS and reviewing 120,000 comments on the proposed standard from stakeholders.

The rule sets nationwide limits for five individual PFAS, including PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, PFHxS, and HFPO-DA. It also limits combinations of any two or more of four PFAS, including PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and HFPO-DA.

According to an EPA news release, the agency has set the Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) for mixtures of PFOA and PFOS at zero because there is evidence that any exposure to these chemicals may harm health.

For PFOA and PFOS individually, the EPA has set the Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) at 4.0 parts per trillion. MCLGs and MCLs for PFNA, PFHxS, and HFPO-DA are capped at 10 parts per trillion.

EPA estimates that the new standards will require between 6% and 10% of the 66,000 public drinking water systems impacted by the rule to take action to reduce forever chemicals.

Public water systems will have three years to complete preliminary monitoring for these chemicals and must inform the public of PFAS levels measured in their drinking water. If a public water system determines that PFAS levels exceed the EPA's limits, it must employ strategies to reduce them within five years.

The EPA says that the new standards will reduce exposure to forever chemicals for around 100 million people in the United States and potentially prevent thousands of serious PFAS-related illnesses and deaths.

Nearly $1 billion in funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is available to assist public water systems and private well owners with PFAS testing and mitigation. The EPA will work with state regulators and local officials to assist them as they implement this rule.

In a news release, Environmental Working Group (EWG) President Ken Cook said, "Today's announcement of robust, health-protective legal limits on PFAS in tap water will finally give tens of millions of Americans the protection they should have had decades ago."

While the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC) believes the new drinking water standards are a step in the right direction, NAWC President and CEO Robert F. Powelson voiced some concerns.

In a statement, Powelson said, "Meeting these new federal regulations will cost billions of dollars. It's a cost that will disproportionately fall on water and wastewater customers in small communities and low-income families. The next step must now be to develop a system where the polluters are held responsible for the cleanup, not our consumers."

The NAWC is calling on Congress and the EPA to enact laws that ensure individuals or companies that manufacture and use PFAS chemicals are responsible for funding water system cleanup and treatment.

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