Forever chemicals should be limited in tap water: EPA
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed the first federal limits on harmful “permanent chemicals” in drinking water, long-awaited protections the agency says will save thousands of lives and prevent serious illnesses, including cancer.
The plan will limit toxic PFAS chemicals to the lowest levels that tests can detect. PFAS, or mono- and polyfluorinated substances, are a group of compounds that are widespread, dangerous and expensive to remove from water. They do not break down in the environment and are linked to a wide range of health problems, including low weight and kidney cancer.
“The science is clear that long-term exposure to PFAS is associated with significant health risks,” Radhika Fox, EPA assistant administrator for water, said in an interview.
Fox called the federal proposal a “transformational change” aimed at improving the safety of drinking water in the United States. The agency estimates the rule could reduce PFAS exposure for nearly 100 million Americans, reducing rates of cancer, heart attacks and birth complications.
The chemicals have been used in consumer products and industry since the 1940s, including non-stick pans, food packaging and firefighting foam. Their use has now been largely phased out in the US, but some still remain.
The proposal would set strict limits of 4 parts per trillion, the lowest level that can be reliably measured, for two common types of PFAS compounds called PFOA and PFOS. In addition, the EPA wants to regulate the combined amounts of four other types of PFAS. Water suppliers must monitor for PFAS.
The public will have an opportunity to comment, and the agency may make changes before issuing the final rule, which is expected at the end of the year.
The Association of State Drinking Water Managers called the proposal “a step in the right direction” but said compliance would be difficult. Despite the federal money available, “significant rate increases will be required for most systems” to remove PFAS, the group said Tuesday.
Environmental and public health advocates have called for federal regulation of PFAS chemicals for years. Over the past decade, the EPA has repeatedly strengthened its protective, voluntary health thresholds for chemicals, but has not set mandatory limits for water suppliers.
Public concern has grown in recent years as testing has identified PFAS chemicals in a growing list of communities, often located near manufacturing plants or Air Force bases.
So far, only a handful of states have issued PFAS regulations, and none have imposed restrictions as stringent as what the EPA is proposing. By regulating PFOA and PFOS at the minimum levels that tests can detect, the EPA is proposing the strictest standards technically possible, experts say.
“This is truly a historic moment,” said Melanie Benesch, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group. “There are many communities that have had PFAS in their water for decades that have been waiting a long time for this announcement to be made.”
The agency says its proposal would protect everyone, including vulnerable communities, and reduce disease on a massive scale. The EPA wants water suppliers to test, notify the public when PFAS are found, and remove the compounds when levels are too high.
Utilities with high pollutant levels are usually given time to correct the problems, but they may face fines or loss of federal grants if the problems persist.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents major chemical companies, criticized the EPA’s “flawed approach” and said “these low limits will likely result in billions of dollars in compliance costs.”
In a statement released Tuesday, the group said it had “serious concerns with the underlying science used to develop” the proposed rule, adding: “It’s important that EPA gets the science right.”
The proposal would also regulate other types of PFAS, such as GenX Chemicals, which manufacturers used as substitutes when PFOA and PFOS were phased out of consumer products. The proposal would regulate the cumulative health threat of those compounds and require treatment if that threat is too high.
“Communities across this country have suffered too long from the ever-present threat of PFAS contamination,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan. The EPA’s proposal could prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses, he said, “and marks the bottom line. step toward protecting all of our communities from these dangerous pollutants.”
Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, which advocates for the cleanup of the PFAS-contaminated area of North Carolina, said it’s important to make those who released the compounds into the environment pay for the cleanup.
The EPA recently awarded $2 billion to states to get rid of contaminants like PFAS, and will release billions more in the coming years. The agency is also providing technical assistance to smaller communities that will soon have to install treatment systems, and the 2021 infrastructure law includes funding to upgrade water systems.
Still, it would be expensive for utilities to install new equipment, and the burden would be especially heavy on smaller cities with fewer resources.
“This is a problem that has been handed over to utilities through no fault of their own,” said Sri Vedachalam, director of water equity and climate resilience at Environmental Consulting & Technology Inc.
Many communities must balance the new PFAS requirements by removing toxic lead pipes and replacing aging water mains that are prone to bursting, Vedachalam said.
Fox said there is “no one-size-fits-all answer” to how communities will prioritize their needs, but said billions of dollars in federal resources are available for water improvements.
Federally-aided water utilities that serve metropolitan areas should be able to spread the cost in a way that “no one will notice,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group that works get toxic chemicals from food, water, clothing, and other items.
Several states have already set limits on PFAS in drinking water. Officials in Michigan, which has the strictest standards of any state, said the cost of removing PFAS in communities where it’s found is reasonable.
Phyllis reports from St. Louis.
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