EPA proposes bold new limits for tackling 'forever chemicals' in drinking water

WASHINGTON – Today the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled unprecedented new limits on the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS as a way to tackle drinking water contamination. The proposal targets six notorious PFAS – PFOA, PFOS, GenX, PFBS, PFNA and PFHxS. 

The limits, known as maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs, are the highest level of a contaminant allowed in drinking water. In addition to weighing health, these limits take water treatment costs and feasibility into consideration. The MCLs announced are 4 parts per trillion, or ppt, for PFOA and 4 ppt for PFOS, currently the limit of detection for both chemicals. For the other four PFAS chemicals, the EPA is proposing a “hazard index,” which is a tool the agency uses to address cumulative risks from mixtures of chemicals. 

While these are the first federal proposed drinking water limits for PFAS, 10 states already have final or interim enforceable drinking water limits for PFAS.

“Today’s announcement by the EPA is historic progress,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. “More than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their tap water. Americans have been drinking contaminated water for decades. This proposal is a critical step toward getting these toxic poisons out of our water.

“The EPA’s proposed limits also serve as a stark reminder of just how toxic these chemicals are to human health at very low levels,” said Faber.

The EPA also set a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal, or MCLG, for PFOA and PFOS of zero, based on identified cancer risks. An MCLG is the maximum level of a contaminant in drinking water at which the EPA determines that no adverse health effects would occur. Whenever there is an identified cancer risk, the MCLG is set at zero. 

“Today we can celebrate a huge victory for public health in this country – EPA is finally moving forward to protect drinking water across the United States by proposing federally enforceable limits on some of the most toxic, persistent, and bioaccumulative chemicals ever found in our nation’s drinking water supply,” said Rob Bilott, the attorney who uncovered the widespread presence of PFAS chemicals and whose story is told in his book “Exposure” and portrayed in the movie “Dark Waters.”

“It has taken far too long to get to this point, but the scientific facts and truth about the health threat posed by these man-made poisons have finally prevailed over the decades of corporate cover-ups and misinformation campaigns designed to mislead the public and delay action,” said Bilott. 

PFAS have been linked to cancer, reproductive harm, immune system damage and other serious health problems, even at low levels. The EPA has known about the risks from PFAS since at least the 1990s

“During these decades of lax regulatory oversight, scientific studies have discovered an increasing number of ways that PFAS wreck havoc in our bodies and harm our health,” said David Andrews, Ph.D., a senior scientist at EWG. “These six PFAS stand out as some of the most well-studied PFAS, but the entire class of chemicals is a health concern. Action to reduce exposure cannot come soon enough.”

In June, the EPA proposed updated lifetime health advisories, or LHAs, for PFOA and PFOS and published new LHAs for PFBS and GenX. LHAs provide information on contaminants in drinking water that can harm people exposed to them throughout their lives. 

The new EPA health risk assessment for the LHAs for the first time included studies on people, including children, and showed that PFAS exposure can cause health harms at levels much lower than the EPA’s previous health guideline of 70 ppt for PFOA and PFOS in water.

“By proposing to regulate four other PFAS as a mixture, the Biden EPA is also putting our communities ahead of the polluters,” said Activist and Actor Mark Ruffalo. “My message to polluters is simple: After poisoning your workers and neighbors for decades, it is time to make our public health, not your profits, our top priority. My message to communities devastated by PFAS pollution is equally simple: Help is finally on the way.”

PFAS have been found in the drinking water and ground water of more than 2,800 communities. But the true scale of contamination is likely much greater. 

EWG estimates there could be nearly 30,000 industrial polluters releasing PFAS into the environment, including into sources of drinking water. Restricting industrial discharges will reduce the amount of PFAS that drinking water utilities must treat. In January, the EPA delayed proposed rules limiting discharges of PFAS from certain industries. 

“Polluters must clean up their own mess and stop PFAS contamination at the source, instead of passing those costs onto utilities and ratepayers,” said Melanie Benesh, EWG’s vice president of government affairs. “In addition to finalizing these limits, the EPA must move quickly to regulate industrial discharges of PFAS into the air and water.”

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA has until September 3, 2024, to finalize the new drinking water standards. Drinking water utilities will then likely have three to five years to comply. Congress provided funding in the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law to address PFAS in drinking water.

“The proposed nationwide standards to limit exposure to PFAS in drinking water are a welcome development to address the harms these toxic chemicals have already inflicted upon individuals and communities,” said Tasha Stoiber, Ph.D., a senior scientist at EWG.

“Decades of unchecked use and releases of PFAS chemicals have devastated the planet by contaminating people, drinking water, and food, including fish and wildlife across the globe,” she added.

Because of current EPA guidelines, between 2023 and 2025, most water utilities will be required to test drinking water for 29 PFAS. That effort will provide more insight into the extent of contamination from those chemicals, which may prompt regulation of other compounds. 

The proposed MCL is limited to six notorious PFAS. Treatment technologies installed to comply with the MCL mean other PFAS will effectively be treated too, which will reduce total PFAS levels in drinking water.

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The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.

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