EPA proposes first legal limits for PFAS in drinking water

“This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants.”

Image Credit: Royalty-Free/Corbis

For the first time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed standards for limiting toxic forever chemicals in drinking water.

The draft regulation, unveiled Tuesday, would target six types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are known to be found in drinking water, setting legal limits for their presence. 

“EPA’s proposal to establish a national standard for PFAS in drinking water is informed by the best available science, and would help provide states with the guidance they need to make decisions that best protect their communities,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in an agency press release. “This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants.”

PFAS are a class of thousands of chemicals that have been widely used by industry since the mid-twentieth century for a variety of uses including firefighting foam, nonstick cookware and stain- or -water-resistant textiles. They have earned their moniker “forever chemicals” because they do not break down easily in the human body or the environment — they are present in the drinking water of around 200 million U.S. residents and the blood serum of the majority of people tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is a concern because PFAS exposure has been linked to health problems from immunosuppression to developmental issues to cancer. 

The Biden administration has taken steps to address PFAS pollution by, among other things, updating the health advisory levels for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) — two of the most common PFAS — in drinking water, proposing that the same two PFAS be listed as hazardous substances under the Superfund law and channeling $10 billion towards dealing with new contaminants via the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. However, Tuesday’s proposal marks the first time that the federal government has set enforceable limits on the chemicals. 

The proposed rule would regulate PFOS and PFOA as individual contaminants. The Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for these chemicals in drinking water would be set at four parts per trillion, which is the level at which it is possible to measure them accurately. 

It would also regulate four other PFAS — PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX Chemicals — as a mixture. This means that drinking water systems would use a hazard index calculation to determine if a mix containing one or more of these chemicals posed a threat. Public water systems would then need to test regularly for the regulated PFAS, publicize the test results and reduce the concentration of the chemicals if it exceeds the legal limits. 

“EPA expects that if fully implemented, the rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses,” the agency wrote.

The move was widely praised by environmental advocates. 

“After decades of delay, President Biden’s EPA has delivered a drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS which, when finalized, will be the toughest in the nation,”  activist and actor Mark Ruffalo said in the EPA release. “By proposing to regulate four other PFAS as a mixture, the Biden EPA is also putting our communities ahead of the polluters.”

The polluters, predictably, were less thrilled. Industry group the American Chemistry Council (ACC) said in a statement shared with EcoWatch that it welcomed attempts to regulate PFOS and PFOA — which all of its members had phased out more than eight years ago. However, it took issue with the MCLs proposed by the EPA, as well as its decision to assess multiple chemicals under a single index. 

“The EPA’s misguided approach to these MCLs is important, as these low limits will likely result in billions of dollars in compliance costs,” an ACC spokesperson said. “The proposals have important implications for broader drinking water policy priorities and resources, so it’s critical that EPA gets the science right. We look forward to reviewing these proposals in detail and commenting to EPA throughout the process.”

Environmental advocates, on the other hand, warned against industry influence in the final rule. 

“For the millions of people with PFAS in their tap water, strong national drinking water standards cannot come soon enough,”Earthjustice attorney Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch.“Today’s proposal is a necessary and long overdue step towards addressing the nation’s PFAS crisis, but what comes next is equally important. EPA must resist efforts to weaken this proposal, move quickly to finalize health-protective limits on these six chemicals, and address the remaining PFAS that continue to poison drinking water supplies and harm communities across the country.”

The EPA expects to have a final rule ready by the end of the year.


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