WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed limiting the amount of harmful “forever chemicals” in drinking water to the lowest levels that tests can detect. A long-awaited protection that the agency said will save thousands of lives and prevent serious diseases, including cancer.
Related: Louisiana gets $26 million to purify drinking water
The plan marks the first time the EPA is proposing regulation of a toxic group of compounds that are common, dangerous and expensive to remove from water. PFAS, or per- and polyfluorinated substances, do not break down in the environment and are linked to a variety of health problems including low birth weight babies and kidney cancer. The agency says drinking water is a significant source of PFAS exposure for humans.
“The scientific community is clear that long-term exposure to PFAS is associated with significant health risks,” Radhika Fox, EPA Assistant Administrator for Water, said in an interview.
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Cancer, heart attack and birth complications
Fox called the federal proposal a “transformative change” to improve drinking water security in the United States. The agency estimates the rule could reduce PFAS exposure for nearly 100 million Americans and reduce rates of cancer, heart attacks and birth complications.
The chemicals have been used in consumer products and industries since the 1940s, including non-stick pans, food packaging, and fire-fighting foam. Their use is now largely phased out in the United States, although some remain.
Radhika Fox, Water Director of the Environmental Protection Agency, poses for a portrait in Washington, Friday, July 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, file)
Manuel Balce Ceneta
The proposal would set strict limits of 4 parts per trillion, the lowest that can be reliably measured, for two common types of PFAS compounds called PFOA and PFOS. In addition, the EPA wants to regulate the combined amount of four other types of PFAS. Water utilities must monitor PFAS.
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The public has a chance to comment, and the agency can make changes before issuing a final rule, which is expected by the end of the year. Water utilities will have time to adapt.
Environmentalists and public health advocates have called for government regulation of PFAS chemicals for years. Over the past decade, the EPA has repeatedly raised its protective, voluntary health thresholds for the chemicals, but has not imposed mandatory limits on water utilities.
Public concern has increased in recent years as testing uncovered PFAS chemicals in a growing list of communities, often located near manufacturing sites or air force bases.
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“Forever Chemicals” found in Mississippi: An environmental group found harmful chemicals at seven of 31 test sites along the Mississippi River last summer. Some of the chemicals are unregulated but have been subject to new regulatory scrutiny across the country; others are common in petrochemical production.
To date, only a handful of states have enacted PFAS regulations, and none have set limits as stringent as the EPA is proposing. By regulating PFOA and PFOS to the minimum levels that tests can detect, the EPA is proposing the strictest possible standards that are technically feasible, experts said.
“This is a truly historic moment,” said Melanie Benesh, vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. “There are many communities that have had PFAS in their water for decades and have waited a long time for this announcement.”
The agency said its proposal will protect everyone, including vulnerable communities, and reduce disease on a large scale. The EPA wants water utilities to test, notify the public when PFAS are found, and remove the compounds if levels are too high.
Utilities that have high levels of pollutants are usually given time to fix problems, but they could face fines or the loss of federal grants if the problems persist.
The proposal would also regulate other types of PFAS, such as GenX chemicals, which manufacturers used as replacements when PFOA and PFOS were phased out from consumer products. The proposal would regulate the cumulative health threat of these compounds and mandate treatment when that threat is too high.
“Communities in this country have suffered from the ever-present threat of PFAS pollution for far too long,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan. The EPA’s proposal could prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related diseases, he said, “and marks a major step in protecting all of our communities from these dangerous pollutants.”
Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, which is working to clean up a PFAS-contaminated section of North Carolina, said it’s important that those who released the compounds into the environment pay the cleanup costs.
“Today is a good step in addressing the massive PFAS public health crisis in our country by incorporating commercially relevant PFAS like GenX,” she said.
The EPA recently gave states $2 billion to get rid of pollutants like PFAS and will release billions more in the coming years. The agency also provides technical assistance to smaller communities that will soon be forced to install treatment systems, and the 2021 Infrastructure Act provides funding for upgrading water systems.
Still, it will be expensive for utilities to install new equipment, and the burden will be particularly high for small towns with fewer resources.
“This is an issue that has been handed over to utility companies through no fault of their own,” said Sri Vedachalam, director of water justice and climate resilience at Environmental Consulting & Technology Inc.
Many communities are having to offset the new PFAS requirements by removing toxic lead pipes and replacing outdated water mains that are prone to rupture, Vedachalam said.
Fox said there is “no one-size-fits-all answer” to how communities will prioritize their needs. However, she said billions of dollars in federal funding are available for water improvements.
Several states have already enacted limits for PFAS drinking water. Officials in Michigan, which has the strictest standards of any state, said the cost of removing PFAS in communities where it was found was reasonable.
Are you turning to bottled water?
When the rules are finalized and implemented, many communities will learn they have supplied drinking water containing harmful compounds. When people learn about problems, they may stop using tap water, distrusting its safety, and turn to bottled water instead. This is often a more expensive choice and can have adverse health effects as people substitute sugary drinks for tap water, which cause tooth decay and contribute to obesity and other health problems.
“This,” Fox said, “is such an important issue for people.”