EPA imposes first limits on PFAS chemicals in drinking water

For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency has established national limits for six types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in drinking water.

These substances, known as PFAS, are nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they barely degrade and are almost impossible to destroy, so they can persist permanently in the air, water and soil. .

As a class of chemicals, PFAS have been linked to a higher risk of certain cancers, heart disease, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, low birth weight, and reproductive problems, including decreased fertility. .

In the United States, most Americans have PFAS in their blood, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The EPA announced Wednesday that levels of PFOA and PFOS — two types of PFAS commonly used in nonstick or stain-resistant products such as food packaging and firefighting foam — cannot exceed 4 parts per trillion in public drinking water.

Three additional PFAS chemicals will be limited to 10 parts per trillion. These are PFNA and PFHxS – older versions of PFAS – and GenX chemicals, a new generation of chemicals created to replace PFOA.

PFOA and PFOS are the most widely used and studied types of PFAS, according to the EPA. Companies began manufacturing them in the 1940s, but these substances were largely eliminated from chemical and product manufacturing in the United States by the mid-2000s. However, they persist in the environment and have for the Most have been replaced by new types of chemicals belonging to the same class.

The new EPA limit reflects the lowest levels of PFOA and PFOS that laboratories can reasonably detect and public water systems can effectively treat. But water systems should aim to eliminate chemicals, the agency says, because there is no safe level of exposure.

Eleven states already have regulatory standards for PFAS in drinking water. The EPA estimates that 6 to 10 percent of the nation’s public water systems, or 4,100 to 6,700 systems in total, will need to make changes to meet the new federal limits.

“One hundred million people will be healthier and safer thanks to this action” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Tuesday during a media call, referring to the number of people served by water systems that will need improvements.

As of Wednesday, public water systems that don’t monitor for PFAS have three years to start. If they detect PFAS levels above EPA limits, they will have two additional years to purchase and install new technologies to reduce PFAS in their drinking water.

The EPA estimates that the new limits will prevent thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of serious illnesses.

One of the biggest health concerns associated with PFOA is the increased risk of kidney cancer. Exposure to high levels of PFOS has also been linked to an increased risk of liver cancer.

GenX chemicals have been shown in animal studies to damage the liver, kidneys, and immune system, as well as liver and pancreatic tumors. Based on rodent studies, exposure to PFNA may cause developmental problems and PFHxS may disrupt the thyroid system.

The EPA also set a limit Wednesday for mixtures of two or more of the following chemicals: PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and GenX. Public water systems can use an equation provided by the EPA to determine whether cumulative concentrations of chemicals exceed the agency’s threshold.

Last year, the EPA proposed limits on PFAS in drinking water. After reviewing public comments, he made the limits official Wednesday.

“This is a huge, historic public health victory,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, an activist group that advocates for stricter regulation of pollutants in drinking water.

Faber called the EPA’s new limits “the most important step we’ve taken to improve the safety of our tap water in a generation” and “the most important step we’ve ever taken to combat PFAS “.

Jamie DeWitt, director of the Environmental Health Sciences Center at Oregon State University, said that while the new limits don’t end the problem of PFAS in drinking water, they represent progress. significant.

“It’s going to give people in contaminated communities at least the feeling that the federal government cares about them and cares about their exposure, because I think a lot of people living in communities affected by PFAS don’t feel heard.” , she said.

The EPA announced Wednesday that $1 billion in funding is now available to help states and territories implement testing and treatment of PFAS in public water systems and to assist water owners. private wells to do the same. The funding comes from the federal infrastructure law passed in 2021, which set aside $9 billion to combat PFAS and other contaminants in water. The money will be distributed in the form of grants.

Some public water systems have also sued companies that manufacture or have previously manufactured PFAS, aiming to hold them responsible for the costs of testing and filtering PFAS. One such lawsuit resulted in a $1.18 billion settlement last year for 300 drinking water providers nationwide. Another lawsuit awarded between $10.5 billion and $12.5 billion, depending on the level of contamination found, to public water systems across the country through 2036.

The most common way to remove PFAS from water is to use an activated carbon filter, which traps the chemicals as the water passes through. Other options include reverse osmosis or ion exchange resins, which act like tiny magnets that attract PFAS chemicals.

But even once water is treated for PFAS, it can take a while to see positive impacts, said Anna Reade, director of PFAS advocacy at the National Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. non-profit environment.

“For most of these six chemicals, it takes between two and eight years for the amount in our body to decrease by half. We will therefore have to wait several years before seeing a substantial reduction in our exposure over time,” she said.

The EPA’s new limits for drinking water only apply to a small fraction of the more than 12,000 types of PFAS, so activists are still concerned about overall exposure.

“This is not the final step,” Reade said. “We still have a lot of other PFAS to worry about.”

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