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The US Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed the first national drinking water standard for 'forever chemicals' that are dangerous to human health, which could radically affect drinking water for nearly everyone in the United States.
The new rule intends to set drinking water standards for six per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS or 'forever chemicals.' PFAS are a family of ubiquitous synthetic chemicals that linger in the environment and the human body, where they can cause serious health problems.
Although there are thousands of PFAS chemicals, the National Institutes of Health reports that under the rule, water systems would have to monitor for six specific chemicals, notify the public about PFAS levels and work to reduce them if levels go above the standard allowed.
The EPA has said that the proposal would prevent thousands of deaths due to exposure to these chemicals, as well as tens of thousands of serious illnesses. The agency has chosen these chemicals because it has the most clear science about their impact on human health and said it is evaluating additional chemicals, as well.
The EPA's proposed limits for these chemicals are so low that they would be hard to detect.
The proposal would regulate two chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, at 4 parts per trillion (ppt). For PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and GenX chemicals, the EPA proposes not one standard for each but a limit for a mix of them.
Water systems would have to determine whether the levels of these PFAS pose a potential risk, the agency said. They may need to install treatment or take other action to reduce PFAS levels, and systems may also even need to switch to different water sources.
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One of the first new chemical standards that would update the Safe Drinking Water Act since 1996 is the proposal. The proposed standards would be much stricter than what the EPA suggested in 2016 when its health advisories recommended PFAS concentrations in drinking water of no more than 70 ppt.
The EPA issued health advisories in June that said the chemicals are much more hazardous to human health than scientists originally thought. The advisories also said that the chemicals are probably more dangerous even at levels thousands of times lower than previously believed.
The EPA had set an internal deadline to propose this rule by the end of last year, but the proposal was going through interagency review. Now that the proposed rule is out, it will be open to a period of public comment. The EPA will take those comments into consideration and issue a final decision on the rule, expected later this year.
The agency said that public water systems generally have three years from the date of the regulation to comply.
Since the 1940s, hundreds of chemicals have been widely used in common household items to repel water and oil. These chemicals can be found in water-repellent clothes, furniture, carpet, nonstick pans, paints, cosmetics, cleaning products, and food packaging. They are also found in firefighting foams.
The extremely strong elemental bonds that make the chemicals repel oil and water also make it difficult for them to break down in the body or in the environment.
In 2007, a study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that PFAS chemicals were present in 98% of the US population.
According to the EPA, exposure to the chemicals can lead to serious health problems such as cancer, obesity, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, decreased fertility, liver damage and hormone suppression. These chemicals primarily settle in the blood, kidney and liver.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued guidelines last year for doctors to test, diagnose and treat the millions of people who have a history of elevated exposure to these chemicals.
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In the last ten years, chemical manufacturers have ceased production of PFOS and PFOA.
The US Food and Drug Administration phased out the use of certain PFAS chemicals in 2016. The FDA and manufacturers also agreed in 2020 to phase out some PFAS chemicals from food packaging and other items that came into contact with food. However, monitoring of the environment by the FDA showed that the chemicals tend to linger, as the 'forever' name implies.
Many chemical companies have been using GenX as a replacement, but according to the EPA it may be problematic. Animal studies have shown that it may affect the liver, kidneys and immune system, and it might be linked to cancer.
The EPA issued final advisories in June for limits in drinking water of GenX, considered a replacement for PFOA, and PFBS, a replacement for PFOS: less than 10 ppt and 2,000 ppt, respectively.
The Biden administration has taken some steps to help eliminate exposure to this pollution. As a part of the 2022 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, $10 billion was made available for cleanup of contaminants like PFAS in drinking water. This is a good start, but more needs to be done to protect Americans from this growing problem.
In February, the EPA also announced that $2 billion would be available to address contaminants like PFAS in drinking water in small, rural and disadvantaged communities.
"We support restrictions on [PFOA and PFOS] use globally, and we support drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS based on the best available science," the American Chemistry Council, an association that represents chemical makers, said in an email to CNN. The council has "serious concerns" about the science that the EPA used to create the rule, calling it "conservative."
Several environmental groups have applauded a recent move by the government.The government's recent move has been applauded by several environmental groups.
"Tuesday's announcement is really historic and long overdue," said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, an environmental research and advocacy group. "There are a lot of communities that have been exposed to these chemicals for decades."
"It's clear that these chemicals are toxic at very low levels," she added. "The EPA is responding to that risk, and I think this is a huge win for public health."
Sarah Doll, the national director of Safer States, said that a new rule, paired with actual resources to clean up contamination and to make sure communities can test for these chemicals, is an important step. Safer States is a group that works to help communities prevent harm caused by dangerous chemicals.
Doll said that not only do they need the polluters to help pay for the cleanup, but seventeen state attorneys general and others are suing now several makers and users of these chemicals. He believes this is a great first step, but that additional resources are going to be needed from those who have caused harm.
The EPA's proposed rule would bring them in line with the 10 states that have enforceable drinking water standards for these chemicals: Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin.
"We're thrilled that the administration is taking these steps forward," said Liz Hitchcock, director of federal policy for Toxic-Free Future, a group that advocates for the use of safer products and chemicals. "This is a huge victory for the environment and public health."
However, a water standard from the EPA is not going to fix the problem on its own. Companies that use these chemicals in their products will need to find new options as soon as possible.
Hitchcock said that we will keep polluting our drinking water if we don't stop the uses of these chemicals.
The US Department of Defense has set a schedule to get PFAS out of firefighting foam by October and to stop using it by October 2024 in order to reduce demand. Hundreds of military properties have been contaminated by foam used to put out jet fuel fires.
The proposal is now open for public comment before the standards are finalized.
The EPA says people who want to make their water safer in the meantime can use point-of-entry or point-of-use filters with activated carbon or reverse osmosis membranes, which have been shown to be effective at removing PFAS from water.