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EPA sets stricter advisories for ‘forever chemicals’ in water

The new levels are below what can be detected, the agency acknowledged

Rob Bilott, a corporate defense attorney who represented a community that was  dangerously exposed for decades to PFAS, spoke a Washington news conference in 2019.
Rob Bilott, a corporate defense attorney who represented a community that was dangerously exposed for decades to PFAS, spoke a Washington news conference in 2019. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The EPA on Wednesday released four drinking water health advisories for so-called forever chemicals based on studies that indicate negative health effects may occur with concentrations that are near-zero and below the agency’s ability to detect.

As part of a series of actions to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance, or PFAS, contamination, the agency issued an interim health advisory for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) to replace advisories issued in 2016. 

While the previous advisory level was 70 parts per trillion for either compound or a combination of PFOA and PFOS, the new advisories are 0.004 and 0.02 parts per trillion, respectively, below detection levels that the agency determines can be reliably measured in water using approved testing methods in a laboratory setting. The EPA also released health advisories for two other chemicals, including a chemical originally introduced as a replacement for PFOA. 

In an accompanying question-and-answer web page, the agency acknowledged that some system operators may be providing water with trace amounts of contamination, but that the risk of harm declines at those levels.

While PFAS remains largely unregulated, the EPA said these actions will be used to inform rulemaking, including national primary drinking water regulations that would create an enforceable standard for PFOA and PFOS, which it anticipates releasing this fall.

“People on the front-lines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement. “That’s why EPA is taking aggressive action as part of a whole-of-government approach to prevent these chemicals from entering the environment and to help protect concerned families from this pervasive challenge.”

For utilities and localities that find PFAS in their drinking water supplies the agency recommended additional monitoring and said that residents concerned could take actions to reduce their exposure, such as installing water filters. 

PFAS have been called forever chemicals for their ability to persist in both the human body and the environment, and have been linked to certain types of cancer and other health problems such as low birth weight and endocrine system disruption.

The man-made chemicals have been used in a wide range of products, from firefighting foam to non-stick cookware. Testing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found PFAS in the blood of nearly all the people in its study, which is said to indicate widespread exposure across the U.S. population.

The Trump administration was criticized by environmental and public health groups for failing to finalize PFAS regulations, leading many states to adopt their own standards. Upon taking office the Biden administration promised to set enforceable limits and revisited some of their predecessor’s decisions. 

Groups that encourage greater regulation applauded the announcement while encouraging the administration to act further.

‘Time to regulate’

“EPA has had to continuously fight polluters and opponents of any meaningful action on PFAS,” Erik D. Olson,  senior strategic director for health at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “But we cannot continue taking a ‘whack-a-mole’ approach to the ever-expanding avalanche of 12,000 PFAS chemicals. It’s time to regulate all PFAS with enforceable standards as a single class of chemicals.”

Industry groups have opposed efforts to regulate PFAS as a class. The American Chemistry Council on Tuesday released a study that found certain types of PFAS chemicals meet international criteria to be designated as polymers of low concern. 

The health advisory could have cost implications, particularly for the Defense Department which has already estimated that remediation of sites polluted by PFAS-containing firefighting foam would run into the billions of dollars even under the previous advisories. House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said the Defense Department “must take action promptly and effectively in response to today’s advisories.”

The EPA announced it was making $1 billion available in grants to help communities address PFAS contamination. The funds, made available through the bipartisan infrastructure law, could be used to cover the cost of technical assistance, water quality testing, contractor training, and treatment system installation.

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