The US Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed the first national drinking water standard for “forever chemicals” that are dangerous to human health. The move 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, according to the National Institutes of Health, 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.
“I am thrilled to announce that EPA is taking yet another bold step to protect public health,” said US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan at a news conference on Tuesday in Wilmington, North Carolina. “Folks, this is a tremendous step forward in the right direction. We anticipate that when fully implemented, this rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS related illnesses.”
Regan said the proposed rule would protect the health of people for generations. He characterized PFAS contamination as “one of the most pressing environmental and public health concerns in the modern world.”
The agency chose these chemicals because it has the clearest science about their impact on human health and said it is evaluating additional chemicals, as well.
The EPA’s proposed limits set the allowable levels for these chemicals so low that they could not be easily detected.
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. They may need to install treatment or take other action to reduce PFAS levels, the agency said, and systems may also even need to switch to different water sources.
Found in homes across the country
The proposal would be one of the first new chemical standards that updates the Safe Drinking Water Act since 1996. The proposed standards would be much stricter than the EPA suggested in 2016, when its health advisories recommended PFAS concentrations in drinking water of no more than 70 ppt.
In June, based on the latest science, the EPA issued health advisories that said the chemicals are much more hazardous to human health than scientists originally thought and are probably more dangerous even at levels thousands of times lower than previously believed.
EPA Commissioner Regan established the EPA Council on PFAS as soon as he came into office in 2021.
“Despite previous administration’s anti-science stance which severely strained EPA financial and human capital, I charged this council with undertaking a comprehensive review of the problem and identifying solutions that we can implement immediately,” Regan said.
In October 2021, the EPA released its PFAS strategic roadmap. In November, the EPA shared a one-year progress report and set an internal deadline to propose this rule by the end of last year, but the proposal was going through an 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.
Public water systems generally have three years from the date of the regulation to comply, the agency said.