EPA to Limit Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Drinking Water

The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing the first federal limits on harmful “forever chemicals” in drinking water. They say this could prevent thousands of illnesses.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first federal limits on harmful “forever chemicals” in drinking water. This long-awaited protection, the EPA said, will save thousands of lives and prevent serious illnesses like cancer. The plan would keep the amount of dangerous PFAS chemicals to the lowest level that tests can find. Per- and polyfluorinated substances, or PFAS, are a group of chemicals that are common, dangerous, and expensive to get rid of from water. They don’t break down in the environment and have been linked to many health problems, such as low birth weight and kidney cancer.

Radhika Fox, the assistant EPA administrator for water, said in an interview, “The science is clear that long-term exposure to PFAS is linked to serious health risks.” Fox said that the federal plan to make drinking water safer in the United States was a “transformational change.” The agency thinks that the rule could reduce the amount of PFAS that nearly 100 million Americans are exposed to. This could lower the rates of cancer, heart attacks, and birth problems.

Since the 1940s, chemicals had been used in consumer goods and industry, such as in pans that don’t stick, food packaging, and firefighting foam. Most people no longer use them in the U.S., but some still do.

The proposal would set strict limits for two common PFAS compounds called PFOA and PFOS at 4 parts per trillion, which is the lowest level that can be reliably measured. The EPA also wants to limit how much of four other types of PFAS are used together. PFAS will need to be checked for by water providers. People will be able to say what they think, and the agency can make changes before putting out a final rule, which is expected by the end of the year.

Eric Kleiner, center, sorts samples for experimentation as part of drinking water and PFAS research at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Center For Environmental Solutions and Emergency Response, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023, in Cincinnati. The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to propose restrictions on harmful “forever chemicals” in drinking water after finding they are dangerous in amounts so small as to be undetectable, but experts say removing them will cost billions. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)

The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators called the proposal “a step in the right direction,” but they also said it will be hard to follow. Even though there is federal money available, the group said Tuesday that “significant rate increases will be needed for most of the systems” that need to get rid of PFAS.

For years, people who care about the environment and public health have asked the government to regulate PFAS chemicals. Over the past 10 years, the EPA has strengthened its protective, voluntary health thresholds for the chemicals many times, but it has not made water providers follow these limits.

In recent years, testing has found PFAS chemicals in a growing number of communities, many of which are near factories or Air Force bases. This has made people more worried. Only a few states have set limits on PFAS so far, and none of them are as strict as what the EPA is proposing. Experts said that the EPA’s plan to regulate PFOA and PFOS at the lowest levels that tests can find is the strictest that is technically possible.

Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said, “This is a really important time in history.” “Many places have had PFAS in their water for decades, and they have been waiting a long time for this news to come out.” The agency said that its plan will protect everyone, even the most vulnerable groups, and cut the number of people getting sick by a huge amount. The EPA wants water providers to test for PFAS, tell the public when they find them, and get rid of them when there are too many of them.

Most of the time, utilities with high levels of a contaminant are given time to fix problems, but if they don’t, they could be fined or lose federal grants. The American Chemistry Council, which is made up of big chemical companies, called the EPA’s approach “misguided” and said, “These low limits will probably cost billions of dollars to follow.”

In a statement released Tuesday, the group said it has “serious concerns” about the science behind the proposed rule, adding, “It’s very important that the EPA get the science right.” The proposal would also set rules for other kinds of PFAS, like GenX Chemicals, which were used as a replacement for PFOA and PFOS when they were taken out of consumer products. The proposal would control how much of a threat these compounds pose to health as a whole and force treatment if the risk is too high.

“Communities all over the country have been facing the constant threat of PFAS pollution for far too long,” said Michael Regan, who is in charge of the EPA. He said that the EPA’s proposal could stop tens of thousands of illnesses caused by PFAS and is a step in the right direction “major step towards keeping these dangerous chemicals out of all of our communities.”

Emily Donovan, who helped start Clean Cape Fear, a group that wants to clean up a part of North Carolina that is contaminated with PFAS, said it was important to make those who put the compounds into the environment pay for the cleanup. The EPA just gave $2 billion to states to help them get rid of contaminants like PFAS, and it will give billions more over the next few years. The agency is also giving technical help to smaller communities that will soon have to install treatment systems, and the 2021 infrastructure law has money for upgrading water systems.

Still, utilities will have to pay a lot to put in new equipment, and this will be especially hard on small towns with less money and resources. Sri Vedachalam, director of water equity and climate resilience at Environmental Consulting & Technology Inc., said that utilities were given this problem through no fault of their own.

Vedachalam said that many communities will have to find a way to meet the new PFAS requirements while also getting rid of poisonous lead pipes and replacing old water mains that often break. Fox said that there is “no one-size-fits-all answer” to the question of how communities will decide which needs are most important, but that the federal government has billions of dollars to spend on water improvements.

With help from the federal government, water companies that serve cities should be able to find a way to spread out costs “Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group that works to get toxic chemicals out of food, water, clothing, and other things, said, “No one will notice.”

PFAS drinking water limits have already been set in a number of states. Officials in Michigan, which has the strictest rules, said the costs to get rid of PFAS in places where it was found were fair. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Erik Olson said that the EPA proposal was important to protect public health. “Strong standards will help make sure that every family has the basic right to have safe water coming out of their kitchen faucet,” he said.