New Proposal to Limit 'Forever Chemicals' in Drinking Water

3 min read

March 15, 2023 -- The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing a new rule that would greatly limit the concentration of endocrine-disrupting “forever” chemicals in drinking water. 

The EPA on Tuesday announced the proposed National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) for six polyfluoroalkyl substances, more commonly known as PFAS, which are human-made chemicals used as oil and water repellents and coatings for common products including cookware, carpets, and textiles. Such substances are also widely used in cosmetics and food packaging.

The Endocrine Society, which represents more than 18,000 doctors who treat hormone disorders, says it fully supports the new EPA proposal. 

It explains that these substances, also known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals, “do not break down when they are released into the environment, and they continue to accumulate over time. They pose health dangers at incredibly low levels and have been linked to endocrine disorders such as cancer, thyroid disruption and reproductive difficulties.”

“This is the first time the government has regulated a new chemical in drinking water in more than 30 years,” the society notes, adding, this “will require major water treatment upgrades at utilities across the country.”

Robert F. Powelson, president and CEO of the National Association of Water Companies, says addressing the PFAS in the nation's water supply will cost “billions of dollars.” 

“It's a burden that under the current structure will disproportionately fall on water and wastewater customers in small communities and low-income families,” Powelson says in a statement. He says the onus should instead fall on “the polluters” -- those who manufacture and use PFAS chemicals, who "should be held directly responsible for the cleanup costs.” 

Although the EPA is proposing a health-based maximum contaminant level goal of zero for these chemicals in drinking water, it acknowledges that this is unenforceable and so has set what it considers an enforceable level, or maximum contaminant level (MCL), of 4 parts per trillion for two of the PFAS,  perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). 

A different standard has been proposed for the remaining four chemicals: perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA) and hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (HFPO-DA) -- known together as GenX chemicals -- perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS), and perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS).

Officials from the EPA told The Washington Post that these proposed limits would be as strong or stronger than limits from about a dozen states that have set their own drinking water standards in recent years. 

“The experts here felt this was the level of stringency required to protect public health, and that the law would allow for us,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan told the newspaper. “This is a transformative action that we're taking.”

The EPA is requesting public comment on the proposed regulation and will hold a public hearing on May 4, which members of the public can register to attend and comment on the rule proposal. The last day to register is April 28.  

The EPA wants to finalize regulation by the end of 2023, although delays are common on new rules. 

If it is fully implemented, “the rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses,” the EPA statement says.