EPA sets first-ever national limits for ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water

The Biden administration on Wednesday set the first-ever national limits for toxic and pervasive ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water.  [The Hill]

The administration’s action seeks to reduce the amount of chemicals belonging to a class known as PFAS in drinking water. 

These substances, which have been used to make waterproof and nonstick products, have seeped into a significant portion of the nation’s water. They have been linked to increased risk of prostate, kidney and testicular cancer, weakened immune systems, developmental delays in children, decreased fertility and high blood pressure in people who are pregnant. 

They have been nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they tend to persist in nature instead of breaking down. 

While some states had previously set their own limits for the amount of PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, that can be in drinking water, there was previously no restriction that applied nationwide.

The EPA said that its rule will reduce exposure to these substances for about 100 million people, preventing 9,600 deaths and nearly 30,000 illnesses in the coming decades. 

“Drinking water contaminated with PFAS has plagued communities across this country for too long,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a written statement. 

“Today, I am proud to finalize this critical piece of our [PFAS] Roadmap, and in doing so, save thousands of lives and help ensure our children grow up healthier,” Regan added.  

The rule is only expected to apply to public drinking water systems and not the water of people who use private wells. The agency estimated that between 6 percent and 10 percent of the nation’s drinking water systems will have to take action to meet the standards.

Water systems will have three years to monitor for the chemicals. If they find levels above the EPA’s standards, they will have to implement a system to reduce them within five years from now.

In addition to the limit on PFAS, the administration announced that $1 billion will be available through the bipartisan infrastructure law to help both water systems and private wells address PFAS. A lawsuit between polluters and drinking water providers were recently settled, with 3M expected to pay more than $10 billion while DuPont and its spinoffs are expected to pay a combined $1.2 billion.

But, the EPA put the rule’s costs at $1.5 billion each year, and a water industry lobby group says it believes that the rule’s financial impact could be greater than the agency has estimated. 

“The magnitude of these additional costs will lead to affordability challenges in many communities,” said a written statement from the American Water Works Association.

While there are thousands of types of PFAS, the EPA’s rule applies to just a handful. Though some of the technologies that are used to filter them from drinking water may also reduce the presence of other types. 

The EPA set legal limits for two of the most toxic – and most notorious – types of PFAS, called PFOA and PFOS at 4 parts per trillion for either compound. 

A “part per trillion” is about equal to one drop of water in 20 Olympic sized pools. 

The agency said that for these two compounds it was also declaring that there is no safe level — setting a non-enforceable health goal at zero. 

For other PFAS, known as PFNA, PFHxS, and GenX the agency set the legal limit at 10 parts per trillion. 

As PFAS can be found in mixtures, the agency is also setting a limit on mixtures of two or more of GenX, PFNA, PFHxS and another substance called PFBS.

Its method for limiting such mixtures uses a technical formula to determine when combinations of these chemicals are hazardous to human health.

The rule received praise from environmental activists, including those living in communities that have been particularly impacted by PFAS contamination.

“I raised my children on this water and watched loved ones suffer from rare or recurrent cancers,” said North Carolina activist Emily Donovan in a written statement. “I’m grateful the Biden EPA heard our pleas and kept its promise to the American people. We will keep fighting until all exposures to PFAS end and the chemical companies responsible for business-related human rights abuses are held fully accountable.”

But, players in the water industry, chemical industry and Republicans pushed back on the rule. 

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said in a written statement that the regulation “takes the wrong approach, which will result in increased costs for local water systems and ultimately, ratepayers.”

— Updated at 10:18 p.m.