EPA to limit toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water: NPR

Michael Regan, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, at an event in 2021. The Biden administration announces a plan to regulate “chemicals forever” in drinking water.

Travis Long/AP

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Travis Long/AP

EPA to limit toxic 'forever chemicals' in drinking water: NPR

Michael Regan, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, at an event in 2021. The Biden administration announces a plan to regulate “chemicals forever” in drinking water.

Travis Long/AP

The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed limiting the amount of harmful “eternal chemicals” in drinking water to the lowest level that tests can detect, a long-awaited protection that the agency says will will save thousands of lives and prevent serious diseases, including cancer.

The plan marks the first time the EPA has proposed regulating a group of toxic compounds that are widespread, dangerous and expensive to remove from water. PFAS, or perfluorinated and polyfluorinated substances, do not degrade in the environment and are linked to a wide range of health problems, including low birth weight babies and kidney cancer. The agency says drinking water is a significant source of PFAS exposure for people.

“The science is clear that long-term exposure to PFAS is linked to significant health risks,” Radhika Fox, EPA Deputy Administrator for Water, said in an interview.

Fox called the federal proposal “transformational change” to improve drinking water safety in the United States. The agency estimates the rule could reduce PFAS exposure for nearly 100 million Americans, lowering rates of cancer, heart attacks and birth complications.

Chemicals had been used since the 1940s in consumer products and industry, including non-stick pans, food packaging and fire-fighting foam. Their use is now mostly phased out in the United States, but some still remain.

The proposal would set strict limits of 4 parts per trillion, the lowest level that can be reliably measured, for two common types of PFAS compounds called PFOA and PFOS. In addition, the EPA wants to regulate the combined amount of four other types of PFAS. Water suppliers will need to monitor PFAS.

The public will have a chance to comment and the agency can make changes before releasing a final rule, which is expected by the end of the year. Water suppliers will have time to adapt.

The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators said the proposal is “a step in the right direction,” but compliance will be difficult. Despite the federal money available, “significant rate increases will be required for most systems” that need to remove PFAS, the group said Tuesday.

Environmental and public health advocates have been calling for federal regulation of PFAS chemicals for years. Over the past decade, the EPA has repeatedly tightened its protective and voluntary health thresholds for chemicals, but has not imposed mandatory limits on water suppliers.

Public concern has grown in recent years as testing has revealed PFAS chemicals in a growing list of communities that are often near manufacturing plants or Air Force bases. .

So far, only a few states have issued PFAS regulations, and none have set limits as stringent as what the EPA is proposing. By regulating PFOA and PFOS to the minimum amounts the tests can detect, the EPA is providing the strictest possible standards that are technically feasible, experts said.

“This is a truly historic moment,” said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Task Force. “Many communities have had PFAS in their water for decades and have been waiting a long time for this announcement to come out.”

The agency said its proposal will protect everyone, including vulnerable communities, and reduce disease at scale. The EPA wants water suppliers to test, notify the public when PFAS are detected, and remove compounds when levels are too high.

Utilities that have high levels of the contaminant usually have time to fix the problems, but they could face fines or the loss of federal grants if the problems persist.

The proposal would also regulate other types of PFAS like GenX Chemicals, which manufacturers used as a substitute when PFOA and PFOS were phased out of consumer products. The proposal would regulate the cumulative health threat of these compounds and require treatment if that threat is too high.

“Communities across the country have suffered for far too long from the pervasive threat of PFAS pollution,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan. The EPA proposal could prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses, he said, “and marks a major step in protecting all of our communities from these dangerous contaminants.”

Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, which advocates for a cleanup of a PFAS-contaminated part of North Carolina, said it’s important to have cleanup costs paid by those who rejected the PFAS. compounds in the environment.

“Today is a good step towards addressing the massive public health crisis of PFAS in our country by including commercially relevant PFAS like GenX,” she said.

The EPA recently made $2 billion available to states to get rid of contaminants like PFAS and will release billions more in the coming years. The agency is also providing technical support to small communities that will soon be required to install treatment systems, and the 2021 Infrastructure Act provides funding for water system upgrades.

But still, it will be expensive for utilities to install new equipment, and the burden will be especially heavy for smaller towns with fewer resources.

“This is an issue that has been passed on to utilities through no fault of their own,” said Sri Vedachalam, director of water equity and climate resilience at Environmental Consulting & Technology Inc.

Many communities will need to balance new PFAS requirements by removing toxic lead pipes and replacing aging water pipes prone to rupture, Vedachalam said.

Fox said there “is no one answer” to how communities will prioritize their needs. She said, however, that there are billions of dollars in federal resources available for water improvement.

The proposed rules are workable and utilities have access to federal funds for drinking water improvements, according to Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. rights that works to eliminate toxic chemicals from food, water and clothing. and other items.

Several states have already imposed drinking water limits for PFAS. Michigan officials, which have the strictest standards of any state, said the costs of disposing of PFAS in communities where they were found were reasonable.

If the rules are finalized and enforced, many communities will learn that they have provided drinking water with harmful compounds. When people discover problems, they may stop using tap water altogether, distrusting its safety, and turn to bottled water instead. It’s often a more expensive choice and one that can have negative health effects if people replace tap water with sugary drinks that cause cavities and contribute to obesity and other health problems.

“This,” Fox said, “is such a concern for people.”


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