EPA announces new drinking water standards to limit ‘forever chemicals’

The new rule will restrict six PFAS chemicals in the water—individually, or in combination with each other or both—requiring public water systems to mitigate if the chemicals are found above allowable levels.

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In an announcement made on Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it had set enforceable limits on perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS in drinking water, a first of its kind. The large group of man-made chemicals, which have been used since the 1940s to waterproof and stainproof products, will now be regulated at the federal level.

The new rule will restrict six PFAS chemicals in the water—individually, or in combination with each other or both—requiring public water systems to mitigate if the chemicals are found above allowable levels.

“There’s no doubt that these chemicals have been important for certain industries and consumer uses, but there’s also no doubt that many of these chemicals can be harmful to our health and our environment,” Michael Regan, EPA administrator, said.

PFAS are also known as “forever chemicals” because their strong molecular bonds don’t break down for a long time and therefore, “PFAS have been linked to serious illnesses, including cancer, liver damage and high cholesterol,” Regan said. The EPA also said PFAS are linked to immune and developmental damage to infants and children.

“The final rule is a breakthrough for public health,” Erik Olson, a senior director with NRDC, said. “We believe it’s going to save thousands of lives as a result of reduced exposure of tens of millions of people to these toxic chemicals in the tap water.”

While there are more than 12,000 known PFAS chemicals, the six that the EPA is restricting “have had many animal and, in many cases, human studies, so [the EPA] feels confident that they have estimated the safe levels of these chemicals,” Elizabeth Southerland, a former EPA official in the Office of Water, said.

Public water systems will have a total of five years to meet the PFAS restrictions; the first three years will be dedicated to sampling the water and governing existing PFAS levels and another two years to have water treatment technology systems in place to rectify the high levels.

An initial $1 billion in grants will help public water systems and private well owners to conduct testing and treatment, which is part of a $9 billion funding package for PFAS removal in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

“This is historic and monumental,” Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, said. “I didn’t think [the EPA] would ever do it.”

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