EPA Announces Rules for ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Drinking Water

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April 10, 2024 – More than 60,000 utility groups that supply much of the U.S. with its drinking water must ensure it’s free of six synthetic chemicals that the Environmental Protection Agency now says may lead to serious illnesses, such as cancer.

Often referred to as “forever chemicals,” there are thousands of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that come from everyday items like nonstick cookware, food packaging, waterproof clothing, stain-resistant furniture, and firefighting foam. The chemicals typically help with product features like waterproofing, and don’t break down in the environment, meaning they can linger in groundwater for generations.

Studies have found PFAS can build up in the body over time, and are even in umbilical cord blood passed from a mother to a fetus in the womb. The substances have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems, poor immune system function, developmental problems in children, heart and liver damage, and other health issues. 

“EPA expects that over many years, the final rule will prevent PFAS exposure in drinking water for approximately 100 million people, prevent thousands of deaths, and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses,” the agency explained in its announcement of the new regulations, which were posted online Wednesday.

The EPA’s move comes after years of evaluation and required public comment periods, and the regulation falls under the agency’s powers in the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. The drinking water for an estimated 100 million people will be subject to the new requirements, although the EPA said that these new rules may also lead the FDA to consider regulating PFAS in bottled water.

Millions of dollars of federal assistance will be available to help water suppliers meet the new requirements. Funding and resources will also eventually be made available to address PFAS in drinking water in rural areas, such as from private wells, although they won’t be subject to these new rules.

The new requirements apply to six specific PFAS: PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, PFNA, and HFPO-DA, along with mixtures "containing two or more of PFHxS, PFNA, HFPO-DA, and PFBS." More PFAS may be limited in drinking water than those six, because the new limits also apply in some cases when PFAS occur in combination with each other. 

Advocacy groups called the changes historic and long overdue.

“Because PFAS are toxic in very low amounts, it’s hard to overstate the public health impact of these new rules. Getting these PFAS out of our drinking water will prevent thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of cases of serious health harms like cardiovascular disease, bladder cancer, strokes, heart attacks, and reproductive harms like preeclampsia and low birth weights. These new limits will save lives,” Melanie Benesh, JD, vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement.

Removal of the PFAS from drinking water won’t be required at first. During the next 3 years, utilities must do monitoring, and by 2027, they must provide public information about PFAS levels in drinking water. Starting in 2029, utilities will need to have put any needed changes in place, such as using new water sources or using removal technology, to meet the new PFAS limits. 

The EPA predicts between 6% and 10% of public drinking water suppliers (up to 6,600 utilities) will need to make changes to meet the requirements. 

Because the new limits won’t be put in place for 5 years and just require reducing PFAS levels but not eliminating them, the EPA offered guidance for people who may want to take more steps. First, the EPA recommends that people contact their water supplier and request information about current PFAS and contaminant levels. The agency also offered a tip sheet for home filtration.

“The standards in this rule are set to reduce PFAS to the lowest levels that are feasible for effective implementation,” the EPA advised. “If you are concerned about the level of PFAS in your drinking water, consider installing in-home water treatment (e.g., filters) that are certified to lower the levels of PFAS in your water.”