The United States Environmental Protection Agency has proposed the first federal limit for so-called “forever chemicals” in the country’s drinking water, a move officials say will save lives.
The proposal announced Tuesday, which is subject to public comment before a final rule is issued, will restrict per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS.
The substances have been linked to a range of health problems, including low birth weight and kidney cancer. They do not degrade naturally in the environment and are expensive to remove from water.
Radhika Fox, assistant EPA administrator for water, called the proposal a “transformational change.” The agency estimates the rule could reduce exposure to PFAS for nearly 100 million Americans.
EPA is proposing the first-ever national standard to limit PFAS in drinking water. This action is an important step to protect communities from PFAS pollution, leveraging the latest science and building on existing government efforts to mitigate PFAS. pic.twitter.com/iBw91oL5Xh
— US EPA (@EPA) March 14, 2023
“The science is clear that long-term exposure to PFAS is linked to significant health risks,” Fox said.
In a statement, the White House said, “PFAS pollution disproportionately affects underserved communities and poses a serious threat in rural, suburban and urban areas.”
Environmental and public health advocates have been calling for federal regulation of PFAS chemicals for years.
But while the EPA has repeatedly strengthened its voluntary health thresholds for the chemicals, it had not previously imposed mandatory limits on water suppliers.
Meanwhile, only a handful of states have enacted PFAS regulations, and none have set limits as strict as what the EPA is proposing, which experts say are the strictest possible standards that are technically feasible.
PFAS compounds have been used in industrial and consumer products since the 1940s, including non-stick pans, food packaging, and fire-fighting foam. Their use has now largely been phased out in the US, but there are still some.
The proposal would set limits of four parts per trillion, the lowest level that can be reliably measured, for two common types of PFAS compounds: perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid sulfonic acid, called PFOA and PFOS, respectively.
In addition, the EPA wants to regulate the combined amount of four other types of PFAS.
The Association of National Drinking Water Managers called the proposal “a step in the right direction”, but noted that compliance will be a challenge.
Despite available federal money, “significant rate increases will be required for most systems” that need to remove PFAS, the group said Tuesday.
The proposal would also regulate other types of PFAS, such as GenX chemicals, which manufacturers used as substitutes as PFOA and PFOS were phased out from consumer products. The proposal would regulate the cumulative health threat of those compounds and mandate treatment if that threat is too high.
“@EPA‘s proposed limits #PFAS chemicals in drinking water prevent serious illness and death. We urge EPA to be just as bold in holding polluters accountable for contaminated drinking water across the country.”
— Action for clean water (@cleanh2oaction) March 14, 2023
In a statement, the president of the environmental group Clean Water Action, Robert Wendelgass, said the EPA proposal “will prevent serious illness and death.”
However, he urged the agency to be “equally decisive in holding polluters accountable for polluted drinking water across the country and limiting the many thousands of PFAS chemicals used every day.”
Others questioned the proposal, with Sri Vedachalam, director of water equity and climate resilience at Environmental Consulting & Technology Inc, telling the Associated Press that the rule would unfairly target utilities.
“This is a problem that has been handed over to utilities through no fault of their own,” he said, adding that communities need to balance the new PFAS requirements with other public health concerns, such as removing toxic lead pipes and replacing aging water pipes. prone to cracking.
The EPA recently made $2 billion available to states to remove contaminants like PFAS and will release billions more in the coming years.
The agency also provides technical support to smaller communities that will soon be forced to install treatment systems, and there is funding in the 2021 Infrastructure Act for water system upgrades.