Nov. 22, 2021 -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is promising a future with safer drinking water.
The agency recently asked its scientific advisory board to review documents about the health effects of certain chemicals found in drinking water and elsewhere in the environment, with new data suggesting health problems may occur at lower exposure levels than previously believed.
The chemicals in question are often called the "forever chemicals," because they don't break down and they accumulate easily in both the environment and the body. Collectively known as PFAS, both PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) have been linked to a variety of health problems. The EPA also says PFOA is likely cancer-causing.
The chemicals are found not only in drinking water but also in a range of everyday consumer products, from rain jackets to pizza boxes, paper goods, and anti-stick cookware. One draw is the chemicals' ability to repel dirt, rain, and grease.
The EPA action "is an important first step, but there is significant work to be done," says David Andrews, PhD, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization promoting better environmental health.
The EPA action isn't the only recent one addressing PFAS contaminants. Last week, a bipartisan bill introduced in Congress would ban the "forever chemicals" from food packaging, with a proposed effective date of Jan. 1, 2024.
And the infrastructure bill just signed by President Joe Biden includes $10 billion to address emerging contaminants in drinking water, including PFAS.
EPA's Efforts on Drinking Water
After the EPA's scientific advisory board reviews the new analyses, which are available for public on the EPA website, the information will be used by the EPA to inform health advisories and to develop the maximum contaminant level goals and a national primary drinking water regulation for both chemicals.
As for timelines, the EPA says it will "move as quickly as possible to issue updated health advisories for PFOA and PFOS after reviewing the new science and getting input from the scientific advisory board," according to a news release issued by EPA. The advisories are not enforceable or regulatory; they are meant to give states and public health officials information on the health effects linked to drinking water contamination.
At the same time as it reviews the new science, the EPA says it will work on the development of the proposed drinking water regulation for publication in the fall of 2022, with an effective date of 2023.
Previously, the EPA has established a health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) in drinking water to protect the public from exposure to PFOA and PFOS. The four draft documents with new data "indicated that negative health effects may occur at much lower levels of exposure to PFOA and PFOS than previously understood and that PFOA is a likely carcinogen," according to the EPA.
While manufacturers have largely phased out production of the chemicals in the U.S., the chemicals are extremely stable and persist in the environment.
Underlying the Concerns
So pervasive are these chemicals that most people in the U.S. have been exposed and have PFOS and PFOA in their blood, the CDC says.
According to the EPA, human studies have linked PFOA exposure to high cholesterol, decreased vaccination response, increased liver enzymes, pregnancy-induced high blood pressure and preeclampsia, and cancers of the testicles and kidney. PFOS exposure has been linked to high cholesterol and reproductive and developmental adverse effects.
As production and use of both PFOA and PFOS have declined since 2002, the CDC says, blood levels have declined from 60% to 80%.
"This is a very significant change in the assessment of PFOS and PFOA [by the EPA]," says Andrews of the Environmental Working Group. "In the documents, the EPA for the first time relied on studies about PFAS impact on human health" rather than animal studies. "As a result, the agency has changed its position on safe levels of exposure."
The latest data indicates that "negative health effects may occur at much lower levels of exposure to PFOA and PFOS than previously understood and that PFOA is a likely carcinogen," Andrews notes in an Environmental Working Group news release.
The EPA's previous assumptions about safe levels "have undervalued or miscalculated potential human harm," Andrews says.
Travis Loop, a spokesperson for the Water Environment Federation, whose members include wastewater utilities in the U.S., says his organization also supports "actions and regulations for PFAS that are based on credible science and developed after careful deliberation." Water utilities are receivers, not producers, of PFAS, and need regulations and laws to limit exposure, he says.
Some States Won't Wait
Frustrated by the EPA timeline, with the 2023 target date for the regulation to take effect, officials in some states have moved forward to make their own regulations on PFAS limits in drinking water. The National Conference of State Legislatures tracks these efforts.
Some states, including Michigan and New Jersey, have already set limits for PFAS in drinking water that are stricter than the current EPA limits.
Safer Chemicals, Healthier Families is an organization that seeks strong chemical policies and educates the public about how to protect families from toxic chemicals.
Its website has updates on progress and suggestions for how to write companies to address contaminants in their products. Current efforts include campaigns to have REI stop producing outdoor gear products with PFAS and to have Burger King stop wrapping their Whoppers in packaging containing the chemicals.