EPA to limit toxic ‘eternal chemicals’ in drinking water

EPA Forever Chemicals

By Michael Phillis and Matthew Daly | Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed the first federal limits for harmful “permanent chemicals” in drinking water, a long-overdue protection the agency said will save thousands of lives and prevent serious illnesses, 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 don’t degrade in the environment and are linked to a wide range of health problems, including low birth weight and kidney cancer.

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

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

The chemicals had been used since the 1940s in consumer products and industry, including nonstick cookware, food packaging, and firefighting foam. Its use is now largely eliminated in the US, but some still remain.

The proposal would set strict limits of 4 parts per trillion, the lowest level that can be safely 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 have to monitor the PFAS.

The public will have an opportunity to comment, and the agency will be able to make changes before issuing a final rule, expected later in the year.

The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators called the proposal “a step in the right direction” but said compliance will be a challenge. Despite federal money available, “significant increases in fees will be needed for most systems” that are expected to remove PFAS, the group said on Tuesday.

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

Public concern has increased in recent years as tests reveal PFAS chemicals in a growing list of communities that are often close to factories 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 strictest possible standards that are technically feasible, experts said.

“This is a truly historic moment,” said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group. “There are many communities that have had PFAS in their waters 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 on a massive scale. The EPA wants water suppliers to run tests, notify the public when PFAS are found, and remove compounds when levels are too high.

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

The American Chemistry Council, which represents major chemical companies, criticized the EPA’s “misguided approach” and said, “These low limits are likely to result in billions of dollars in compliance costs.”

In a statement Tuesday, the group said it has “serious concerns about the underlying science used to develop” the proposed rule, adding, “It is critical that the EPA get the science right.”

The proposal would also regulate other types of PFAS, such as GenX Chemicals, which manufacturers used as a substitute when PFOA and PFOS were phased out from 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 long suffered from the ever-present threat of PFAS pollution,” 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 advocates cleaning up a PFAS-contaminated patch in North Carolina, said it was important to make those who released the compounds into the environment pay the cleanup costs.

The EPA recently committed $2 billion 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 smaller communities that will soon be forced to install treatment systems, and there is funding in the 2021 Infrastructure Act for water system upgrades.

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

“This is an issue that has been handed over 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 the new PFAS requirements with removing poisonous lead pipes and replacing aging water pipes prone to rupture, Vedachalam said.

Fox said there is “no one-size-fits-all answer” for how communities will prioritize their needs, but said billions of dollars in federal funds are available for water improvements.

With federal help, water utilities serving metropolitan areas should be able to distribute costs in a way that “no one will notice,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that works to get toxic chemicals from food, water, clothing and other items.

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