The effort to get “forever chemicals” out of drinking water has finally gone federal. After years of study and delay, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed regulating six per– and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in the nation’s water supply.
The proposal, if finalized, would cap levels of the two most well-known compounds, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), at 4 parts per trillion each in drinking water. The EPA said it would regulate four other substances — PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and GenX — as a mixture.
“Communities across this country have suffered far too long from the ever-present threat of PFAS pollution,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan declared March 13 in announcing the first national standards for protecting drinking water from the chemicals.
Under pressure to deal with PFAS contamination discovered in their communities years ago, 10 states, including New York and Pennsylvania, have already imposed their own drinking water limits on PFOA and PFOS. Another, Delaware, was in the process of doing so.
If finalized, the EPA’s maximum contaminant levels will require community water systems to monitor for the six chemicals. They will also be required to notify the public and reduce PFAS contamination if levels exceed the proposed limits. The agency will take public comments for 60 days before deciding how or whether to finalize the proposed limits.
PFAS are a group of about 9,000 highly persistent synthetic chemicals used since the 1940s in a variety of industrial and consumer products, including firefighting foam, nonstick cookware, water– and stain-repellant fabrics and some food packaging. Studies have linked long-term exposure to some of the chemicals with serious health problems, including cancer and reproductive and immune system damage.
The chemicals have been found in the drinking water or groundwater of nearly 2,800 communities nationwide, according to the Environmental Working Group. That includes dozens of communities in the six-state Chesapeake Bay watershed, many of them near military facilities or airports where PFAS-laden firefighting foam was deployed or stored.
At least 200 million Americans nation-wide have tapwater with some level of PFAS in it, according to a 2020 study. PFOA and PFOS have been detected in about a fourth of Pennsylvania’s 412 water systems sampled and in a similar proportion of 454 community systems checked in Maryland, according to those states’ data.
Until recently, most states had only acted to reduce PFAS in a limited number of water systems where concentrations of PFOA and PFOS exceeded 70 parts per trillion. That was the lifetime health advisory level the EPA set in 2016, a guideline many experts considered too lax in light of recent studies.
Last June, the EPA updated its health advisories, lowering the recommended level for PFOA to 0.004 parts per trillion and for PFOS to 0.02 parts per trillion. But those “safe” exposure levels cannot be detected in monitoring, so water system operators had anxiously awaited the EPA’s decision on the regulatory limit.
Regan said the proposal is “informed by the best available science,” and the agency predicted that the limits, if finalized, will over time prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses.
Environmentalists for the most part welcomed the EPA’s move, saying it was long overdue. Scott Faber, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, called the agency’s announcement “historic progress.”
Some, though, complained that the EPA has not gone far enough. Kyla Bennett, science policy director at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, called the EPA’s proposed limits “baby steps forward” and said the agency should instead be regulating all PFAS, instead of just a handful, and phasing out the use of all but the most essential.
Water system operators and the chemical industry criticized the EPA’s move. The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies voiced concern about the costs of compliance, while the American Chemistry Council called the EPA’s approach “misguided” and questioned the underlying science.
Some utilities will have to lower PFAS levels by tapping new sources or treating their raw water. The EPA has said there are proven treatment technologies such as granular activated carbon, reverse osmosis and nanofiltration.
The costs could be substantial. For one contaminated water system in North Carolina, it could cost $43 million to install treatment and $3 million or more annually to run it, the water agencies association’s director said.
The infrastructure law passed last year by Congress includes $10 billion in aid to communities to deal with contaminants like PFAS in drinking water, and the Biden administration announced in February that it was ready to distribute $2 billion of that.
Spokespeople for state environmental agencies across the watershed said they were still studying the EPA’s proposed limits.
“We are working very closely with waterworks on assessing their needs, determining PFAS occurrence statewide, and providing resources/funding to our stakeholders on the emerging contaminants in drinking water,” said Tony Singh, deputy director of the Office of Drinking Water at the Virginia Department of Health. He estimated that 1,600 water systems could be affected.
Virginia lawmakers, in 2020, had called for the state to develop its own PFAS drinking water limits, but the legislature backtracked in 2022, deciding instead to wait for the EPA. Ten of 45 waterworks sampled initially detected at least one PFAS, Singh said. A new round of sampling begun last year has found PFAS in a third of the systems checked so far.
In Maryland, 73 water systems sampled statewide had levels of PFOA or PFOS above the EPA’s proposed limits, according to the Department of the Environment. In Pennsylvania, 93 water systems sampled had PFOA and PFOS above the EPA’s proposed cap, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.
Those states that acted earlier to adopt their own drinking water limits on PFAS will have to adjust them if the EPA’s proposal is finalized.
New York had capped PFOA and PFOS at 10 parts per trillion in 2020, while earlier this year Pennsylvania set a maximum of 14 ppt for PFOA and 18 for PFOS. Delaware was still in the process of finalizing its regulation, which would have set a ceiling for PFOA at 21 ppt and PFOS at 14 ppt.
This article was originally published on BayJournal.com and is republished with permission.