EPA proposes new rule to crack down on PFAS, forever chemicals in our water

By: - March 14, 2023 2:41 pm
A water bubbler

The EPA set an MCL of 4 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS. (Getty Images)

This story was first published at N.C. Policy Watch.

The EPA on Tuesday announced its proposed maximum contaminant levels – MCLs – for six types of toxic PFAS in drinking water and acknowledged that no amount of these compounds is safe.

“EPA anticipates if fully implemented the rule will prevent tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses or deaths,” the agency wrote in a slide presentation obtained by Policy Watch.

Known as MCLs, they are legally more robust than the agency’s previous health advisory goals, in that they’re enforceable under the Safe Drinking Water Act. If the rules are finalized, public utilities will face a herculean and expensive task of installing advanced treatment systems to reduce the compounds from treated water.

The EPA set an MCL of 4 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS. It is essentially detection level – the lowest concentration that can be reliably detected by most laboratories.

For four other PFAS types, the EPA would measure them as a mixture: GenX, PFNA, PFBS, and PFHxS, either individually or combined, should not exceed 1 part per trillion.

Depending on exposure levels, PFAS have been linked to multiple health problems, including thyroid and liver disorders, reproductive and fetal development problems, immune system deficiencies, and kidney and testicular cancers.

In addition to drinking water, PFAS are found in microwave popcorn bags, compost, artificial turf, fast-food containers, firefighting foam, water-, stain-, and grease-resistant fabrics, and hundreds of other consumer products.

There are upward of 12,000 types of PFAS; they’re known as “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

If the rules are finalized as written, public utilities would be required to monitor for the six types of PFAS, notify the public of the levels, and reduce the concentrations in drinking water.

“No one should ever wonder if the PFAS in their tap water will one day make them sick,” said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear in a prepared statement. “… Today is a good step towards tackling our nation’s massive PFAS public health crisis by including commercially relevant PFAS like GenX.

“We now need every office within the EPA, and all other federal agencies, to use a whole of government approach to address PFAS as a class, stop all PFAS exposures at their source, make responsible parties pay for the clean-up, and give overexposed communities access to health monitoring.”

Because PFAS can’t be removed by traditional treatment methods, most public utilities would have to spend millions of dollars to upgrade their systems. Some of this funding would be available through the federal infrastructure plan.

“This is going to have a serious impact on water providers across the nation because PFAS is so ubiquitous and systems will be required to test, monitor, and remove these substances if the amount found exceeds the MCLs,” wrote Valentina Marastoni-Bieser, vice president of marketing and client engagement for the SL Environmental Law Group, based in New Hampshire.

“We have yet to see a contaminant with such a combination of dangerous attributes. … This is truly unprecedented and likely to be the most expensive environmental hazard in history. Unless the manufacturers responsible for this pollution are held accountable, ratepayers – who have also likely been exposed to the toxic chemical – will be the ones to bear the burden of billions of dollars needed to clean the contaminated water.”

The most common advanced systems for public utilities include reverse osmosis and granular activated carbon. But that’s not necessarily the end of the PFAS waste. Contaminated membranes must be disposed of in special landfills.

For the PFOA and PFAS, the agency set an additional MCL goal of 0 ppt. MCLGs, as they’re known, are voluntary and non-enforceable, but signal to the public that this is the level at which no negative health effects are expected. In other words, a level of 0 ppt means no amount of these two compounds is safe.

The EPA has set zero-level MCLGs for other well-known contaminants; lead, for example, has an MCL of 5 parts per billion, but a goal of zero.

For the other four compounds, the MCLG is 1 ppt.

Environmental advocates and concerned residents have long urged the EPA to set legally enforceable standards. Previously, the agency had issued only recommendations.

Last June, Radihka Fox, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Water, announced the more stringent lifetime health advisory goals at the national PFAS conference. Although legally unenforceable, the new and alarming figures were game-changers for public utilities and private well owners, as well as state environmental regulators and the chemical industry. Essentially the EPA concluded that no amount of PFAS in drinking water was safe.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Lisa Sorg, environmental reporter, joined N.C. Policy Watch in July 2016. She covers environmental issues, including social justice, pollution, climate change, and energy policy. Before joining the project, Lisa was the editor and an investigative reporter for INDY Week, covering the environment, housing, and city government. She has been a journalist for 22 years, working at magazines, daily newspapers, digital media outlets, and alternative newsweeklies.