EPA regulates for “forever chemicals” in drinking water

For the first-time ever, the Environmental Protection Agency announced national regulations limiting the amount of certain perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, in drinking water.  This is the first time the EPA has set a drinking water standard for a new contaminant since 1996. The National Primary Drinking Water Regulation was announced by EPA Administrator Michael Regan on April 10, 2024.  

These substances are commonly called “forever chemicals,” and they are synthetic chemicals found nearly everywhere in the air, water, and soil. They can take thousands of years to break down in the environment. PFAS have been in use since the 1940s to repel oil and water and are heat resistant, which makes them popular for a variety of products, such as nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpet, solar panels, artificial turf, firefighting foam, and waterproof clothing.      

The EPA determined that there is no safe level of exposure to PFAS without risk of health impact. Exposure to certain levels of PFAS in the environment can cause a range of health issues, including reproductive problems like decreased fertility, developmental delays and low birth weight in children, suppressed immune system, increased cholesterol levels, impacts to the cardiovascular system, and certain types of cancer such as kidney cancer and testicular cancer.  

There are more than 15,000 PFAS chemicals, but these new regulations only apply to six.  PFAS is a broad family of chemical substances, and the new rules set strict limits on two common types called PFOW and PFOS at four parts per trillion. Three other types including GenEx Chemicals that are a major problem in North Carolina, PFHxS, and PFNA, are limited to ten parts per trillion. Combinations of some PFAS types will be limited too. The new regulations will require pubic water utilities to test for six different types of PFAS chemicals to reduce exposure in drinking water. Although the new rules only target six chemicals, the additional efforts by water utilities to filter out these six specific PFAS will probably significantly reduce other PFAS in the water supply as well.

The EPA estimates that of the 66,000 public water utility systems subject to these regulations, 6-10% may need to take action to comply with the regulations.  Operators have three years to test for PFAS contamination, and then an additional two years to identify, purchase, and install the necessary technology to treat the water contaminated by PFAS. Beginning in 2027, water systems will need to tell customers if the utility detects the six specified PFAS. By 2029, the utilities will need to notify the public of a violation to any of the PFAS limits no later than 30 days after the water system learns of it.   

For public water utility companies to comply with the new drinking water standards, the EPA is providing $1 billion to states and territories to implement PFAS testing and treatment at pubic water systems.  These funds are part of $9 billion allocated under the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill to fund efforts to mitigate PFAS in water systems.  And an additional $12 billion from the bill to fund general improvements to drinking water infrastructure.  Lastly, companies that manufactures these chemicals, like 3M, Dupont, Chemours, and Corteva, have agreed to settle a class-action lawsuits for more the $11.4 billion, and these proceeds will be available to public water systems to remove PFAS.   

-by Lynn D.