The Environmental Protection Agency proposed its first-ever rule to reduce the prevalence of PFAS chemicals in drinking water Tuesday, taking the first step to require cities to test for the so-called "forever chemicals."
"Today, I am thrilled to announce that EPA is taking yet another bold step to protect public health. I'm so proud to announce that EPA is proposing the first ever national standard to protect communities from PFAS in drinking water. This is something that communities like Wilmington have been demanding for years. And today we're finally answering those calls," EPA Administrator Michael Regan said at the announcement in Wilmington, North Carolina.
The type of chemicals known as PFAS, short for per- and poly-fluorolalkyl substances, have become ubiquitous in modern life, used in everything from household products like nonstick pans, waterproof clothing and furniture to industrial uses like military-grade firefighting foam and manufacturing. They're often nicknamed "forever chemicals" because they can stay in the environment or in the human body for a long time once they're introduced.
The proposed EPA rule will regulate two of the oldest these chemicals -- PFOA and PFOS -- as well as a mixture of four other chemicals in this category including GenX, which has been detected in the Cape Fear River in North Carolina.
"It's the resilient and durable qualities that make these chemicals so useful in everyday life. But it's also what makes them particularly harmful to people in the environment," Regan said Tuesday. "What began as a so-called miracle groundbreaking technology meant for practicality and convenience, quickly devolved into one of the most pressing environmental and public health concerns in the modern world."
Long-term exposure to certain types of PFAS, which can accumulate in the body over time, "have been linked to serious illnesses, including cancer, liver damage and high cholesterol," according to Regan.
PFOA and PFOS will be limited at a maximum level of four parts per trillion, meaning any water system that identifies levels above that would need to notify residents and take actions to get levels at least down to at least that level. The EPA previously recommended that anything above 70 parts per trillion is considered unsafe, but it lowered that health advisory level last year.
There hasn't been national testing to determine how many Americans have this level of the chemicals in their water, but the EPA estimates that 3,400-6,300 water systems serving 70-94 million people use water that contains PFAS levels above what will be allowed under this rule.
The agency says the rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of illnesses attributable to PFAS if fully implemented.
The American Chemistry Council, a trade group that represents the industry that makes these chemicals, says it supports drinking water limits on PFOS and PFOA but disagrees with the science EPA used to decide on the maximum limits.
"PFOA and PFOS were phased out of production by our members more than eight years ago. We support restrictions on their use globally, and we support drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS based on the best available science," ACC said in a statement. "However, we have serious concerns with the underlying science used to develop these proposed MCLs and have previously challenged the EPA based on the process used to develop that science."
Many advocates and experts applauded EPA's rule as a critically important step but said they still want to see the agency regulate all 12,000 chemicals in the PFAS category and hold the companies who make the chemicals and caused PFAS pollution accountable.
"EPA's groundbreaking proposal to regulate six PFAS 'forever chemicals' for the first time is crucially important. We have a five-alarm fire. Setting strong standards will help ensure the fundamental right of every family to have safe water flowing from their kitchen tap. We must crack down on PFAS polluters. They should be required to halt further pollution, clean up the contamination they've already caused, and pay to treat PFAS-contaminated drinking water," Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.
Regan said the Biden administration has also made $9 billion available as a "shot in the harm" to help public water systems start to address this issue.
The EPA rule will be published for public comment and could be revised. Regan said he plans to finalize it by the end of this year.