WASHINGTON (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed the first federal restrictions on harmful “eternal chemicals” In drinking water, the long-awaited protection, the agency says, will save thousands of lives and prevent serious diseases, including cancer.
The plan would limit toxic PFAS chemicals to the lowest level that tests can detect. PFAS, or per- and polyfluorinated substances, are a group of compounds that are widespread, dangerous and expensive to remove from water. They do not break down in the environment and are linked to a wide range of health problems, including low birth weight and kidney cancer.
The EPA has stated that drinking water is a a significant source of PFAS exposure for people.
“The science clearly shows that long-term exposure to PFAS is associated with significant health risks,” Radhika Fox, EPA’s assistant administrator for water resources, said in an interview.
Fox called the federal proposal a “transformational change” to improve the safety of drinking water in the United States. The agency estimates the rule could reduce PFAS exposure for nearly 100 million Americans, reducing rates of cancer, heart attacks and birth complications.
Chemicals have been used since the 1940s in consumer goods and industry, including in non-stick pans, food packaging and fire-fighting foam. Their use is now mostly discontinued in the US, but some still remain.
The proposal sets 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, EPA wants to regulate a total of four other types of PFAS. Water suppliers will be required to monitor for PFAS.
The public will have an opportunity to comment, and the agency may make changes before issuing a final rule, which is expected before 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 enforcement will be difficult. Despite the federal money available, “significant rate increases will be required for most systems” required 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 strengthened its protective, voluntary health thresholds for chemicals, but has not imposed mandatory limits on water suppliers.
Public concern has grown in recent years as testing finds PFAS chemicals in a growing list of communities that are often near manufacturing facilities or Air Force bases.
So far, only a handful of states have issued PFAS regulations, and none have set limits as strict as what the EPA is proposing. By regulating PFOA and PFOS at the minimum amounts that tests can detect, the EPA is proposing the toughest standards that are technically feasible, experts say.
“This is truly a historic moment,” said Melanie Benes, vice president of government relations for the Environmental Working Group. “There are many communities that have had PFAS in their water for decades that have been waiting a long time for this announcement.”
The agency said its proposal would protect everyone, including vulnerable populations, and reduce disease on a massive scale. The EPA wants water suppliers to conduct testing, notify the public of PFAS findings and remove the compounds if levels are too high.
Utilities with high levels of pollutants are usually given time to fix the problems, but they can face fines or the loss of federal grants if the problems don’t go away.
The proposal would also regulate other types of PFAS, such as GenX Chemicals, which manufacturers used as replacements when PFOA and PFOS were phased out of consumer products. The proposal would regulate the cumulative health threat of these compounds and prescribe treatment if that threat is too high.
“Communities across the country have suffered for too long from the ongoing threat of PFAS contamination,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan. The EPA’s proposal could prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses, he said, “and represents an important step toward protecting all of our communities from these dangerous contaminants.”
Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, which is advocating for the cleanup of the PFAS-contaminated North Carolina site, said it’s important to make those who released the compounds into the environment pay for the cleanup.
“Today is a good step toward addressing our nation’s massive public health crisis through the inclusion of commercially significant PFASs like GenX,” she said.
The EPA recently awarded $2 billion to states to get rid of contaminants like PFAS and will release billions more in the coming years. The agency also provides technical support to small communities that will soon be forced to install treatment systems, and there is funding in Infrastructure Act of 2021 for the modernization of the water supply system.
However, it will be expensive for utilities to install new equipment, and the load will be particularly heavy small towns with fewer resources.
“It’s no fault of theirs that this problem has been handed over to utilities,” said Sri Vedachalam, director of water justice and climate resilience at Environmental Consulting & Technology Inc.
Many communities will need to balance the new PFAS requirements with removing toxic lead pipes and replacing older water lines that are prone to bursting, Vedahalam said.
Fox said there is “no one-size-fits-all answer” to how communities will prioritize their needs, but said billions of dollars in federal resources are available for water improvements.
With federal help, water providers serving metropolitan areas should be able to spread the costs in a way that “nobody notices,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government relations at the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group that works on toxic chemicals from food, water, clothing and other items.
Several states have already implemented PFAS drinking water limits. Officials in Michigan, which has the strictest standards of any state, said the cost of removing PFAS in communities where it was found is reasonable.
When the regulations are finalized and implemented, many communities will find out that they have been supplying drinking water with harmful compounds. If people become aware of the problems, they may stop using tap water altogether, not trusting his safety, and turn to bottled water instead. This is often a more expensive choice that can have negative health consequences as people replace tap water with sugary drinks that cause tooth decay and contribute to obesity and other health problems.
“That,” Fox said, “makes people worry.”