EPA Warns Against Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Drinking Water

The federal agency’s new limits on drinking water contaminants take aim at synthetic substances called PFAS that are linked with health issues

Tap with running water
The EPA is recommending lower levels of PFAS in drinking water. Pixabay

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled this week new health warnings for toxic chemicals commonly found in drinking water across the country. The latest research suggests that the substances, a group of chemicals called PFAS, are even more dangerous to human health than previously thought, per an announcement from the EPA.

PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. For decades, manufacturers have used these synthetic chemicals to make food wrappers, sunscreen, nonstick cookware, makeup, smartphones, flame-retardant equipment, fire-fighting foam and hundreds of other products designed to withstand heat, water, grease and stains.

But the very same properties that make PFAS so durable and useful also cause the chemicals to build up in the body and in the environment. They’re so persistent that they’ve been nicknamed “forever chemicals.”

Chemical manufacturers have mostly stopped producing PFOS and PFOA—two types of PFAS— over the last decade, though as the EPA notes, a “limited number of ongoing uses”  still exist. Despite that, the chemicals remain in the environment—and thus remain harmful to human health—because they do not break down over time. Research has linked PFAS with an array of serious health issues ranging from cancer to low birth weights to weakened immune systems. Scientists estimate that more than 200 million Americans may be drinking water that’s contaminated with PFAS.

“People on the front-lines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long,” says Michael Regan, the EPA administrator, in a statement.

Pouring water
Scientists estimate that more than 200 million Americans have PFAS in their drinking water. Pixabay

Since 2016, the EPA’s advised limit in drinking water for two of the most widely used of these compounds, PFOS and PFOA, was 70 parts per trillion. Now, the federal agency has slashed the limits to 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS and 0.004 parts per trillion for PFOA. The numbers indicate what the EPA has determined to be safe levels in drinking water, also taking into account the fact that people may be exposed to PFAS elsewhere. The new limits are so low that they’re beyond the EPA’s detection capabilities, according to the agency. 

As Erik Olson, a senior strategic director for the advocacy group the Natural Resources Defense Council, tells the Washington Post's Dino Grandoni, the new limits represent “really sharp reductions” from the older numbers. The EPA says it made its decision based on new research that suggests that people may develop health issues even when concentrations of PFOS and PFOA are vanishingly small.

The EPA also recommended safe drinking water limits for substances that are considered replacements for PFOA and PFOS. For so-called “GenX” chemicals, or hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid, the EPA now recommends levels of 10 parts per trillion or below. For PFBS, or perfluorobutane sulfonic acid, the limit is 2,000 parts per trillion.

Responses to the EPA’s announcement were mixed: Some advocates say the agency didn’t go far enough and should regulate PFAS as a whole (more than 9,000 chemicals fall under the PFAS chemical umbrella), while others complained that the new advisories were premature and would only cause confusion.

For now, the EPA is not enforcing or regulating these limits in any way. Rather, the health advisories are meant to give state agencies, public health officials and consumers more information about drinking water contamination.

Still, the EPA may impose mandatory standards for some PFAS in the fall, per the announcement, which would require municipal utilities to remove the substances from drinking water using activated carbon or ion exchange filtration. As Tom Perkins reports for the Guardian, that move could trigger lawsuits against chemical manufacturers. Also this week, the EPA announced that it’s making $1 billion worth of grants available to help communities “on the frontlines of PFAS contamination” reduce the chemicals in their drinking water.

In the meantime, individuals who are concerned about PFAS should take steps to limit their own exposure, such as installing a water filter or finding other water sources for ingestion, per the EPA.