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EPA lowers safety level for ‘forever chemicals,’ weighs regulating them in groups

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is saying that certain types of “forever chemicals” are more dangerous than previously thought and is considering regulating these compounds in groups instead of individually. 

“Forever chemicals,” a nickname for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are a class of toxic chemicals that have been linked to illnesses including testicular and kidney cancers and thyroid disease. 

A Biden administration official told reporters on Tuesday night that the agency was lowering its health advisory — meant to inform the public about how much is considered safe to drink —  for the two most notorious types of PFAS, known as PFOA and PFOS to “near zero” in new interim advisories.

It is also setting new final drinking water advisories for two other types of PFAS, called GenX and PFBS. Previously, it did not have advisories for these substances.

But, these health notices aren’t regulations and don’t set enforceable limits on the substances. There is not currently a federal drinking water limit for PFAS, but the EPA is expected to propose the first-ever regulations this year. 

The agency has previously announced that it planned to set drinking water limits for PFOA and PFOS, but an official told reporters on Tuesday that the administration was also considering regulating them in bigger groups. 

As the EPA weighs its anticipated regulation, it is also looking at its options for setting limits on more types of PFAS in groups, the person said, noting that GenX and PFBS could be part of these groups. 

Health advocates have called for regulating more than just the two types of PFAS, instead saying they should be regulated as a class of chemicals. This is because, in the past, industry has swapped out one type of PFAS for another. The chemicals also often occur together in mixtures instead of one single type appearing by itself. 

The advisories issued on Wednesday are expected to inform the agency’s future regulation. 

“People on the front-lines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long. 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,”  EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement on the new advisory levels. 

The moves come as part of a broader strategy by the administration aimed at addressing PFAS, as it previously released a “strategic roadmap” for tackling the toxic chemicals. 

PFAS have leached into waterways over the years after they were discharged by industry and the military.

They have also been found in a variety of household products including nonstick pans, rain coats and other water-resistant clothing, cosmetics and more. 

They are sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they linger and build up over the years in human bodies and the environment instead of breaking down. 

Previously, the EPA had set its health advisory for PFOA and PFOS at 70 parts per trillion, but the new limits are much lower, at 0.004 parts per trillion for PFOA and 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS. 

Meanwhile, the new advisory levels  for GenX and PFBS are 10 parts per trillion and 2,000 parts per trillion, respectively. 

These values describe the levels at which it is safe for a person to drink these substances in the water over the course of their lifetime. 

They come after the EPA last year found PFOA and PFOS to be much more toxic than previously believed in draft assessments. 

The chemical industry pushed back on the EPA’s action, raising procedural concerns.

“The Agency’s revised LHAs for PFOA and PFOS are based on toxicity assessments that are currently beingreviewed by EPA’s Science Advisory Board. Rather than wait for the outcome of this peer review, EPA hasannounced new Advisories that are 3,000 to 17,000 times lower than those released by the ObamaAdministration in 2016,” American Chemistry Council said in a statement.

“These new levels cannot be achieved with existing treatment technology and, in fact, are below levels that can be reliably detected using existing EPA methods,” the group added. 

Meanwhile, environmental advocates say the new, lowered safety advisories show that the government needs to work faster to regulate PFAS because of how dangerous they are.

“Today’s announcement should set off alarm bells for consumers and regulators,” said Melanie Benesh a legislative attorney at the Environmental Working Group in a statement. “These proposed advisory levels demonstrate that we must move much faster to dramatically reduce exposures to these toxic chemicals.”

Updated 2:25 p.m.

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