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PFAS in drinking water

PFAS: EPA releases proposed drinking water standards for six “forever chemicals”

The Biden administration announcement comes after years of pleas from exposed communities, scientists and health and environmental activists.

2 min read

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announcedtoday new proposed drinking water standards for six individual PFAS chemicals —a move that could re-shape how drinking water is tested, sourced and treated throughout the U.S.

If adopted, the proposed changes would represent the first modification to drinking water standards for new chemicals under the Safe Drinking Water Act since 1996.

PFAS, short for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of potentially harmful chemicals used in multiple products including nonstick pans, cosmetics, some clothing, food packaging and firefighting foams. They are linked to multiple negative health outcomes including some cancers, reproductive problems and birth defects, among others. The chemicals don’t break down readily in the environment, so are often called “forever chemicals.” The nonprofit Environmental Working Group has found PFAS contamination at more than 2,800 locations in all 50 states, including in many public and private drinking water systems.

Related: What are PFAS?

The proposed changes would regulate two chemicals that are no longer in use, PFOA and PFOS at 4 parts per trillion. Four other chemicals — PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and GenX — would be regulated based on the hazard of the mixture of them. While the six chemicals in the proposal are common, there are an estimated more than 9,000 types of PFAS compounds.

If the regulations are adopted, water system operators would have to test for the chemicals. If they are found above the thresholds, they’d have to take action — by installing additional treatment, finding a new water source or other methods. Public water treatment systems would have about three years to comply.

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement the proposal is “informed by the best available science, and would help provide states with the guidance they need to make decisions that best protect their communities.”

“This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants,” he added.

Last year the EPA released lifetime health advisories for GenX, PFBS, PFOA and PFOS, and opened up $10 billion in grant funding — via the 2022 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act— to assist communities dealing with PFAS and other emerging contaminants.

Environmental groups seek PFAS phase-outs  

Environmental groups lauded the new proposed changes — and urged a complete phase-out of PFAS in products.

“We applaud the Biden administration for following the lead of the states and stepping up to protect communities from these toxic ‘forever chemicals,’” said Sarah Doll, national director of Safer States, in a statement. “We urge the federal government to continue to follow the lead of states and phase out the production and use of these chemicals in favor of safer solutions so that we stop adding PFAS to our already polluted water, land, and air.”

Ten states — Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin — have already established standards for individual PFAS in drinking water. Many retailers — most recently REI — are phasing out the chemicals as well.

Liz Hitchcock, federal policy program director for Toxic-Free Future, said in a statement that the regulations are an important stop but “to prevent further PFAS contamination, we must put an end to uses of PFAS chemicals in firefighting foams used by military and civilian firefighters and in consumer products like food packaging and textiles.”

The new proposed regulation will open for public comment, and then the agency will make a final decision — likely later this year.

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