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Your drinking water could contain fewer hazardous 'forever chemicals' under new federal rules

Catherine Boudreau,Morgan McFall-Johnsen   

Your drinking water could contain fewer hazardous 'forever chemicals' under new federal rules
  • The Biden administration has set the first-ever limits on levels of PFAS in drinking water.
  • These "forever chemicals" are linked to some cancers, lower fertility, and other health issues.

The Biden administration is cracking down on toxic "forever chemicals" that are widespread in America's tap water, food, and household products.

The EPA on Wednesday finalized the first-ever limits on levels of PFAS in drinking water, putting the chemicals in the same class of other well-known pollutants like lead, arsenic, and nitrate.

PFAS are called "forever chemicals" because they don't biodegrade and instead accumulate in the environment and our bodies over time, creating a hazard to human health. Peer-reviewed studies have linked them to some cancers, decreased fertility, reduced vaccine response, high cholesterol, and developmental delays in children.

"It is easily the most consequential and difficult decision to protect drinking water in the past 30 years," Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, told reporters.

He added that the watchdog group started researching PFAS more than two decades ago and found PFAS everywhere they tested, including in umbilical cord blood.

The chemicals were originally developed in the 1940s to make non-stick cookware, and then exploded in use in clothing, carpets, food packaging, and firefighting foam used by airports and military bases to put out jet-fuel fires. Companies that make PFAS also dumped the chemical into waterways, landfills, and unlined pits in states like North Carolina and Minnesota.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan is announcing the new limits in drinking water in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where residents in 2017 learned a river was heavily contaminated with PFAS pollution from a manufacturing plant owned by Chemours, and DuPont before it.

"This action will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious illnesses," Regan told reporters, citing EPA estimates about the impact of the drinking water limits.

There are thousands of different types of PFAS manufactured today. The EPA is regulating six of them based on research linking them to harm and showing they are prevalent in drinking water, David Andrews, deputy director of investigations and senior scientists at EWG, told BI.

They include PFOA and PFOS that persist in waterways and the environment, despite being phased out of production in the US since the 2000s. The EPA said these two chemicals effectively aren't safe at any level, but the lowest level modern labs can detect in drinking water is 4 parts per trillion — the limit the agency set.

The limit for several other chemicals is 10 parts per trillion. EPA also set limits for mixtures of two or more PFAS chemicals, because research shows they may have combined health impacts.

States and local water officials will have five years to comply with the new limits: Three to test PFAS levels; and if they exceed the federal limits, another two years to install technology that cleans up the water. The administration is making $1 billion available in grants for public water systems and private well owners to install treatment technology.

Senior administration officials said they expect up to 10% of the 66,000 water systems in the US will have to take steps to comply. That means the vast majority won't detect PFAS levels beyond the new limits. But this is just an estimate, they added. The first three years of sampling will indicate the real scope of the problem.

"The technology is there, especially to clean up drinking water, to filter these compounds out of the water. So it becomes a question of cost and political feasibility," Andrews previously told BI.

"The agency has known about the harms that these chemicals can cause for decades," he added. "For too long, many people across the country have had been drinking contaminated water levels that likely impact health."

The Biden administration has a broader $9 billion PFAS strategy that goes beyond drinking water, including military bases, airports, and food packaging.

The FDA in February said paper food packaging — like fast-food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, and take-out pizza boxes — is no longer being made with certain kinds of grease-proofing PFAS. The voluntary phase-out eliminated the main source of exposure from our diets, the agency said. Still, there are lingering stocks of packaging that contain PFAS that could take months to be exhausted.

Some scientists told BI that while these are important steps, they aren't enough to control PFAS contamination.

"It's better than no regulation, but it's really just a Band Aid solution to the entire problem," Carmen Messerlian, a professor of reproductive environmental epidemiology at Harvard's TH Chan School of Public Health, who studies PFAS, said. "We should regulate the entire class of chemicals and stop companies from manufacturing them to begin with, rather than try to regulate how much is in our water."

Correction: April 10, 2024: An earlier version of this article misspelled Carmen Messerlian's last name.

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