EPA Proposes First Limits for Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Drinking Water

Under the rule, public water systems would monitor levels of six types of long-lasting contaminants known as PFAS

A firefighter sprays a wildfire with foam.
"Forever chemicals" have been in firefighting foam as well as products including nonstick cookware and water-repellant clothing. Research has linked them to a number of health problems, including cancer. Avalon / Contributor via Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the first-ever countrywide limits on the levels of “forever chemicals” in drinking water. According to the agency, the new rule, if approved, could prevent thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of illnesses caused by these contaminants.

The synthetic chemicals, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), have been used in a number of products since the 1940s, including nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics, certain cosmetics and some firefighting foams, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

PFAS break down very slowly over time—they persist in the environment and have found their way into the blood of humans and animals as well as drinking water. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to a number of health problems, including increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, increased cholesterol levels and small decreases in infant birth weights, according to the CDC. Evidence is mounting to show that even low amounts of PFAS can cause harm.

“In most of the scientific community, there is growing consensus that there may be no safe level for these chemicals,” Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, tells the Wall Street Journal’s Kris Maher.

If finalized, the EPA’s proposal would require public water systems to monitor the levels of six kinds of PFAS in drinking water, notify the public of their findings and reduce the amount of chemicals if they exceed the proposed standards. Two types of PFAS, called PFOA and PFOS, would be legally capped at four nanograms per liter, with the goal of limiting them to zero. The combined level of the other four types would also be controlled in public water systems. While these six chemicals are among the most commonly used, more than 12,000 types of PFAS exist in total, according to Grist’s Zoya Teirstein.

The new proposal drastically tightens the standards the EPA recommended in 2016, which advised limiting PFAS levels in drinking water to 70 nanograms per liter, according to CNN’s Jen Christensen. EPA limits would supersede looser state regulations, per the Wall Street Journal. Ten states already enforce limits on some types of PFAS in drinking water.

The EPA expects to finalize its proposed rule by the end of 2023. Then, water utilities would need to start following the rule three years after that, according to Stat News Brittany Trang.

Filtering out PFAS would require water utilities to invest a lot of money in new technology, per Grist. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides about $10 billion for working to reduce contamination of drinking water. But dealing with contaminants in addition to aging infrastructure will likely cost much more, writes Stat News.

“Instead of coming from the pockets of water and wastewater customers and utilities, the polluters should be held directly responsible for the cleanup costs,” Robert F. Powelson, president and chief executive of National Association of Water Companies, which represents private water utilities, tells the Wall Street Journal.

The proposed rule would not apply to privately owned wells, from which an estimated 23 million people get drinking water. The EPA website provides information on testing for and preventing private well contamination.

Tuesday’s announcement “is really historic and long overdue,” says Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, an environmental research and advocacy organization, per CNN. “It’s clear that these chemicals are toxic at very low levels and the EPA is responding to that risk, and I think this is a huge win for public health.”

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