The US Environmental Protection Agency moved Tuesday to limit harmful “permanent chemicals” in drinking water for the first time, in an attempt to reduce exposures for up to 100 million Americans.
Chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, are documented causes of cancer, heart attack, and low birth weight, among many other ills. They do not break down on their own and are expensive to remove.
“The science is clear that long-term exposure to PFASs is associated with significant health risks,” Radhika Fox, EPA’s deputy administrator for water, told The Associated Press.
The EPA is proposing to limit two common types of PFAS, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), to 4 parts per billion, which is the lowest measurable level. The agency would also regulate the combined amount of four other types of PFAS and order water providers to monitor the compounds.
“This is a really historic moment,” said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, an author of studies on chemical contamination. “There are many communities that have had PFAS in their water for decades and have been waiting a long time for this announcement to come out.”
PFAS can cause everything from low birth weight to kidney cancer. They have been in widespread use throughout manufacturing since the 1940s and can be found in products such as nonstick skillets, greaseproof pizza boxes, food containers, and firefighting foam.
While phased out, the chemicals do not break down, which means they accumulate in the environment and in people’s bodies. They have been detected in municipal drinking water throughout the country and have also appeared in freshwater fish.
Fox called the changes “transformational,” while the American Chemistry Council called the EPA’s approach “mistaken” and warned that it would “likely result in billions of dollars in compliance costs,” some of which could fall on local utilities rather than the manufacturers that caused the contamination.
“The proposals have important implications for broader drinking water policy priorities and resources, so it is critical that EPA get the science right,” the group, which represents large chemical companies, said in a statement.
EPA is accepting public comments on the proposed rule and may make changes before issuing a final rule later this year.
with cable news services