The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a landmark change to curb ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water — a move that could radically affect nearly every US household.
The first-of-its-kind standards would require public utility companies nationwide to filter out the chemicals to reach new, significantly limiting standards.
Under the new guidance, drinking water would not be able to contain more than four parts per trillion (ppt) PFOA or PFOS — two common forever chemicals that fall within the PFAS umbrella.
They are a category of human-made chemicals that can cause serious health problems over time, such as cancer, kidney disease and infertility. The EPA hopes it to prevent thousands of deaths in the future by limiting exposure to these chemicals.
Experts warn almost all Americans have been exposed to PFAS due to prevalence in tap water, cookware and clothing. It is estimated that more than 200 million Americans are drinking PFAS-contaminated drinking water.
Drinking water cannot contain more than four parts per trillion for PFOA and four parts per trillion for PFOS under the new proposed rules
There will also be a standard based on the hazard of a mixture of four additional PFAS chemicals: PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and HFPO-DA (commonly known as Gen X).
The six PFAS the EPA is enforcing legal limits on are known to occur in drinking water.
Water systems may have to install treatment to reduce PFAS levels or even used a different water source, the EPA said, as drinking water supplies will have to be rid of any detectable levels of PFOS and PFOA — two of the worst chemicals.
The chemicals enter drinking water when products containing them are used or spilled onto the ground or into lakes and rivers. Once in groundwater, PFAS can travel long distances and contaminate drinking wells.
PFAS that is in the air can also get into rivers and lakes which could be used for drinking water.
The EPA estimated it would cost $772 million a year to upgrade water treatment plants and foot the bill for ongoing monitoring and treatment costs needed to meet the rule, Politico reported.
The agency admitted that the extra cost will, at least at the start, fall on American citizens through higher water bills.
In the UK, there are no statutory standards for PFAS in drinking water.
There will be a public consultation on the EPA’s suggested limits before they are finalized.
PFAS chemicals are used as oil and water repellents and coatings for common products including cookware, carpets, and textiles.
The endocrine-disrupting substances do not break down when they are released into the environment, and they continue to accumulate over time.
PFAS chemicals can contaminate drinking water supplies near facilities where the chemicals are used.
They also enter the food supply through food packaging materials and contaminated soil.
EPA administrator Michael Regan said: ‘Communities across this country have suffered far too long from the ever-present threat of PFAS pollution.’
He added: ‘This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants.’
Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for Consumer Reports, said: ‘No one should have to worry about ingesting toxic forever chemicals in the water they drink every time they turn on the tap at home.
He added: ‘We’re pleased that the EPA has proposed strict limits on these PFAS chemicals based on the best science available and look forward to supporting these standards in the months ahead. We urge the EPA to do all it can to finalize these rules by the end of the year.’
Concerned about the chemicals’ ability to weaken children’s immune systems, the EPA said last year that PFAS could cause harm at levels ‘much lower than previously understood.’
There is evidence the compounds are linked to low birthweight, kidney cancer and a slew of other health issues.
Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz, senior attorney, toxic exposure and health at Earthjustice, previously said the drinking water limits would ‘help ensure that communities are not being poisoned.’
Over the last decade, an increasing number of cities and towns, often abutting manufacturing plants or Air Force bases, suddenly realized they had a problem.
In 2016, for example, Sarah McKinney was on maternity leave when she got word there was too much PFOA and PFOS in the tap water in her Colorado Springs suburb.
She picked up her weeks-old daughter and hustled out to buy enough bottled water for her family of five.
‘If I’m just spitting it out, can I brush my teeth?’ she remembered wondering.
In response to concerns from people who had been drinking the water for years, Ms McKinney’s water utility switched to a different source, provided water bottle filling stations and installed a $2.5million treatment system that was the first of its kind in the country, according to Lucas Hale, the water district manager.
The chemicals had gotten into the water from nearby Peterson Air Force base, which then built a treatment facility.