US limits PFAS “forever chemicals” in drinking water

Technology to test and treat PFAS chemicals is costly but necessary, experts say

The US government has proposed its first-ever restrictions on six harmful chemicals in drinking water.

Research has found that over 200 million Americans are likely drinking water contaminated with PFAS chemicals, which have been linked to a variety of health problems, including cancer.

But so far, the pollutants are only regulated by a few US states.

The US enacted a rule on Tuesday that would require communities to test and treat water for six of the chemicals.

Once implemented, it will “prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-related diseases,” the Environmental Protection Agency said.

PFAS, dubbed “forever chemicals,” linger in the environment for years.

What are PFAS chemicals and how dangerous are they?

PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of thousands of chemicals. The water, oil, and grease-repellent pollutants are found in hundreds of everyday products, from dental floss to cookware to fire-fighting foam.

Although most US companies have stopped manufacturing the most studied types of PFAS chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, they remain widely used due to their lack of degradation in the environment.

In 2022, the EPA determined that the pollutants could cause harm at “much lower levels than previously thought” and that almost no exposure was safe because the chemicals were linked to a variety of health issues, including reproductive problems and decreased immune function, thyroid disease and asthma.

Research is ongoing to determine how different levels of exposure can lead to different health effects.

The new US regulations come as countries around the world grapple with how to regulate the perennial chemicals. Both Canada and the European Union are in the process of proposing and adapting new universal limits for PFAS levels in drinking water.

What do the EPA rules do?

The new federal limits will help fill in large gaps in existing PFAS drinking water regulations, which are currently only enforced by only 10 states, according to Sarah Doll, the national director of Safer States, which tracks chemicals regulations.

Specifically, the new rule, which experts said would be finalized after 60 days of public comment, will require communities to test for and treat two of the “forever chemicals,” PFOA and PFOS, if they are found in concentrations higher than four parts per trillion. The rule also requires municipalities to monitor four other PFAS chemicals – PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and HFPO-DA – as a mixture.

The EPA limits are likely to have a greater impact on the quality of public drinking water because the thorough testing and treatment process required for PFAS will allow utilities to clean the water of contaminants other than PFAS, said Dr. Lee Ferguson, Professor of Environmental Chemistry at Duke University.

But the new rules could also cause some communities to worry about the safety of their drinking water, as PFAS is widespread and the new treatment systems could take time to roll out, said Dr. Carol Kwiatkowski of the Green Science Policy Institute, an environmental advocacy group.

“Wherever you test for it, you’ll find it,” said Phil Brown, a co-director of the PFAS project lab.

Who pays for water treatment?

The restrictions could help reduce health inequalities across the US and protect Americans who are unknowingly exposed to PFAS and other pollutants, experts at the BBC have said.

Communities with poorer quality drinking water systems will reap the greatest benefits from the new EPA limits, but may also have the most difficulty implementing the new systems, which cost a smaller city up to $5 million (£4.11 million). ) could cost , according to Dr. Brown.

Alissa Cfalter, the co-director of the PFAS project lab that is researching the chemicals, said it will help improve municipal water stewardship in states that don’t currently have PFAS rules.

“This is an important step in getting health protection down to earth.”

Through its infrastructure bill, the Biden administration has allocated $5 billion to address water contaminants like PFAS, of which $2 billion is earmarked for disadvantaged communities. But that’s not enough, experts say.

As a result, states expect polluters themselves to help them foot the bill. More than a dozen states have sued companies they claim are responsible for the PFAS contamination, including Minnesota, where manufacturing company 3M settled in 2018 with the state for $850 million, which ties the company to the allegation that it had damaged drinking water. The company plans to stop manufacturing and using Forever Chemicals.

But while cleaning up the chemicals is an important first step in protecting Americans’ health, the safest and most cost-effective method would be to limit manufacture of the chemicals, experts said.

“You have to turn it off at the source,” said Dr. Kwiatkowski. “There’s no point in cleaning them out of the water over and over again if we keep putting them back in.”

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