EPA announces first federal restrictions on toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water

Water providers will have a total of five years to test and treat their drinking water for PFAS.

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Eva Stebel, water researcher, pours a water sample into a smaller glass container for experimentation as part of drinking water and PFAS research at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Center For Environmental Solutions and Emergency Response

Eva Stebel, water researcher, pours a water sample into a smaller glass container for experimentation as part of drinking water and PFAS research at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Center For Environmental Solutions and Emergency Response, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday announced its first limits on toxic “forever chemicals” in public drinking water nationwide.

Drinking water providers will be required over five years to monitor and treat its water to reduce PFAS levels to almost zero, and inform their customers if the chemicals exceed the EPA’s limits.

President Joe Biden’s Investing In America agenda has set aside $1 billion to help water providers eliminate PFAS. The funding is part of $9 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law dollars allocated to address PFAS.

EPA said its goal is to address increasing concerns about PFAS, a large class of chemicals used in hundreds of everyday products, and its links to numerous serious health problems, including some cancers.

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“This standard will reduce PFAS exposure to approximately 100 million people … This action will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious illnesses,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan during a press conference. “With today’s action, we are one huge step closer to finally shutting off the tap on forever chemicals once and for all.”

PFAS chemicals have tainted the water, air and soil across the country for decades. The chemicals have been widely used in consumer products such as nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing and some food packaging, as well as in firefighting foam.

Water supplies located near military bases and airports —  from Bucks and Montgomery counties in Pennsylvania to the cities of New Castle and Dover in Delaware — have been particularly impacted by the historical use of firefighting foam. Residents in New Castle and elsewhere have exceedingly high levels of PFAS in their bloodstreams, according to studies.

Almost half of drinking water in the U.S. contains the toxic class of chemicals PFAS, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The consequences of exposure to PFAS are long-lasting — the compounds can stay in the environment, and the human bloodstream, for years. The chemicals have been linked to some cancers, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, developmental delays in children and other health conditions. There have been numerous lawsuits against companies that manufacture and use the chemicals, such as DuPont and its successor companies and 3M, alleging they knew about the dangers as early as the 1960s.

Prior to Wednesday’s announcement, the EPA set an unenforceable health advisory for PFAS in drinking water that providers could use as guidance, if they chose. The guidance was reduced from 70 parts per trillion to almost zero parts per trillion in June 2022 after the EPA published a finding that the chemicals are much more dangerous than previously understood.

Though there have been no prior enforceable federal regulations for PFAS, some states, including New Jersey, and most recently, Pennsylvania, implemented what are known as maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs.

Federal officials say the EPA’s new PFAS regulations will prevent more than 4 million cancer deaths, thousands of premature deaths and tens of thousands of serious illnesses, including immune and developmental impacts to infants and children.

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Community members and environmental advocates say they’re relieved by the announcement.

Hope Grosse, co-founder of Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water, grew up across the street from the Naval Air Warfare Center in Warminster. Her father died of brain cancer, and she suspects PFAS may have been the cause of his diagnoses.

“Grassroots advocacy groups like ours have been on the front lines for nearly a decade, calling for federal drinking water standards for PFAS,” Gross said. “This has been a really long 10-year journey for all of us. This is both an emotional day and a day that restores my faith in our leaders.”

Joanne Stanton, who along with Grosse helped form the Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water, also was exposed to PFAS-contaminated drinking water. Her son, now an adult, was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was 6 years old.

Stanton said she’s overcome with emotion, because she feared PFAS regulations would never come.

“I know first hand there’s no safe level [of PFAS], because as a mom, I know what it feels like to hear a doctor say your child has cancer, and later learn the unfathomable — that my exposure to PFAS-contaminated drinking water during my pregnancy could have actually caused my son’s cancer,” she said. “I’m grateful that the EPA set this drinking water standard, because it may save other moms the heartache of hearing those same words.”

What are the regulations?

Though the EPA said no level of PFAS is safe, the agency has set MCLs for two types of PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — at 4 parts per trillion. The agency said it’s the lowest possible level it can enforce, based on the ability to reliably measure and remove these contaminants from drinking water.

The new federal MCLs are much lower, and more restrictive, than current regulations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. New Jersey sets an MCL of 13 parts per trillion for PFOS and 14 parts per trillion for PFOA, while Pennsylvania’s MCL is 14 parts per trillion and 18 parts per trillion, respectively, for those two types of PFAS.

The EPA will also regulate three other types of PFAS chemicals — PFNA, PFHxS and GenX chemicals —- at 10 parts per trillion. The agency will also limit any mixture of two or more of those chemicals, as well as PFBS.

Water providers will have up to two years to test their water for PFAS, and if high levels of the chemicals are found, they will have another two years to install treatment systems.

“[The standards] will have enormous positive consequences for public health, particularly in the communities that have been the hardest hit by PFAS contamination … and finally provide legal protection for people’s drinking water across the country,” said Katherine O’Brien, an attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice.

The new standards do not apply to private water wells, which aren’t regulated by state or federal agencies. However, federal funding for PFAS will be allocated to states to help private well owners test and treat their water, officials said Wednesday.

The EPA estimates between 6% and 10% of public drinking water systems currently do not meet the agency’s new PFAS standards. The agency estimates it could cost more than a billion dollars for water providers to meet the new regulations.

In New Jersey, 101 water systems have exceeded the state’s PFAS regulations to date. The state estimates at least 360 of the more than 3,000 water systems throughout the state currently exceed the new federal MCLs, said Shawn LaTourette, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

New Jersey, which was the first state in the country to enact PFAS regulations, oversees safe drinking water act regulations within the state. Over the next couple years, the state’s MCLs will be replaced by the lower federal standards, LaTourette said. The state has contacted water providers to help them prepare, he said, and help them acquire the funding needed to treat its water supplies.

The commissioner called the EPA standards “bold” and “necessary.”

“Only strong nationwide standards can ensure that every single American gets clean, safe drinking water that is free from synthetic PFAS forever chemicals that can endanger our health,” LaTourette said.

“Every single person expects that when they turn on the tap, they get clean, safe drinking water. And unfortunately, there are those polluters throughout our economy that may think they’ve invented a great product, but turns out that that product, like Teflon and other types of coatings that include PFAS, have poisoned our environment and infected our water supplies.”

He said he urges residents to better understand where their water comes from, and whether it’s contaminated.

In a statement, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said it will work with EPA and communities to implement the new standards.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s first-ever national regulations to address PFAS will help us safeguard every Pennsylvanians’ constitutional right to pure water,” the agency said.

A spokesperson for the Delaware Division of Public Health said in an email that the state “intends to implement the EPA’s final PFAS rule and the associated maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) as required. By limiting the amount of chemicals allowed, Delaware will be able to provide cleaner drinking water throughout the state.”

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