Energy & Environment

Biden administration proposes national limit for toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water

AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez
The Environmental Protection Agency wants to regulate chemicals known as PFAS but has acknowledged that they do not know how to efficiently detect PFAS in water, or how to remove it from drinking water.

The Biden administration on Tuesday proposed the first-ever nationwide drinking limits for toxic substances known as “forever chemicals” that have become pervasive in U.S waterways. 

The chemicals, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), have been found to cause kidney and testicular cancer, as well as thyroid disease. 

They are sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they linger in the environment and human body instead of breaking down. Studies have found the chemicals to be in more than 83 percent of U.S. waterways and in the blood of 97 percent of Americans.

The substances have been used in a variety of waterproof and nonstick products including Teflon pans and waterproof makeup and apparel. They have also been used in firefighting foam that has been used by the military, and has leached into waterways through pollution from both industry and military sites. 

If finalized, the proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency would require drinking water systems across the country to limit the amount of two types of PFAS, known as PFOA and PFOS, to 4 parts per trillion. 

It would also take action to regulate mixtures of four other types of PFAS.

“We anticipate that when fully implemented, this rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-related illnesses,” said EPA administrator Michael Regan during a press conference in his home state of North Carolina 

The drinking water limits had at least some degree of bipartisan support. 

“After years of urging three consecutive administrations of different parties to do so, I’m pleased a safe drinking water standard has finally been issued for PFOA and PFOS,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said in a written statement. 

The West Virginia Republican added that she is looking forward to hearing from those who will be impacted by the announcement, “including local water systems and ratepayers across the country, on how we can provide assistance for implementation.”

In order to comply with the regulation, drinking water systems would have to monitor for the substances, notify the public and either install water treatment technology to filter them out or switch to using uncontaminated water to get under the limit. 

While a handful of states have put forward drinking water limits for PFAS, the EPA’s proposal would be the first standard to apply nationwide.  

The current standard drinking water allows more PFAS in public water systems than the amount that the agency has said is safe to drink for PFOA and PFOS. At levels as small as this safety level, however, substances can be difficult to detect.

The EPA said that the limit It has proposed is the “lowest feasible quantitation level.”

In response, water utilities and other industries have raised concerns about the potential costs of compliance. 

Tom Dobbins, CEO of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies said in a statement that the group is “concerned about the overall cost drinking water utilities will incur to comply with this proposed rulemaking.” 

Some environmental activists, meanwhile, praised the EPA’s approach. 

“This is, I think, a homerun for the EPA and welcome to the many communities that have been exposed to PFAS for decades,” said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, adding that the agency is not only regulating the two most notorious types of PFAS — but also taking “bold action” to address groups of the substances. 

Others, however, said that while it is a step in the right direction, the regulations don’t go far enough.

The group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on Tuesday called for the thousands of PFAS to all be regulated as a group instead of targeting just six of them. 

“EPA’s proposed regulations are baby steps forward, but are too little and too late,” said Kyla Bennett, PEER’s director of science policy, in a written statement. “The few PFAS we have studied are toxic, and all PFAS are persistent, so to protect human health and the environment, EPA needs to turn off the PFAS tap as soon as possible.”

Updated March 14 at 12:10 p.m.

Tags drinking water EPA Joe Biden Michael Regan PFAS Shelley Moore Capito

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