EPA Proposes Federal Limits on Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Drinking Water

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the first federal limits on dangerous “forever chemicals” in drinking water. The agency said the long-awaited protection would prevent serious illnesses, including cancer, and save thousands of lives. 

The new plan would limit toxic per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) chemicals to the lowest testable level. PFAS are a group of dangerous compounds, expensive to remove from water and widespread. They do not degrade in the environment and have links to various health issues, including kidney cancer and low birth weight. 

“The science is clear that long-term exposure to PFAS is linked to significant health risks,” said assistant EPA administrator for water Radhika Fox.

Fox said the federal proposal is a “transformational change” for increasing drinking water safety in the U.S. The EPA estimates the rule could reduce PFAS exposure for almost 100 million Americans, decreasing heart attacks, birth complications, and cancer.

The chemicals have been used since the 1940s in industry and consumer products, including food packaging, firefighting foam, and nonstick pans. Their use is almost phased out in the United States, but some still need to be revised. 

A new proposal would set strict limits

The new EPA proposal would set strict limits of four parts per trillion, the lowest level that can effectively be measured, for two PFAS compounds, PFOS and PFOA. Additionally, the EPA wants to regulate a combined number of four other types of PFAS. Providers of water will have to monitor for PFAS.

The agency can change the plan before issuing a final rule, with the public having a chance to comment. The final rule is expected by the end of the year. 

For decades, public health and environmental advocates have called for federal regulation of PFAS chemicals. Over the past decade, the EPA has frequently increased the strength of voluntary, protective health thresholds for chemicals but has not yet imposed mandatory limits on water providers. 

In recent years, public concern has increased as testing has revealed PFAS chemicals in an ever-growing list of communities that are frequently near Air Force bases or manufacturing plants. Only recently, only a handful of states have issued PFAS regulations and have yet to set any limits close to as strict as the ones the EPA is proposing. 

The agency claims its proposal will protect everyone to reduce illness on a massive scale, including vulnerable communities. The EPA wants to require water providers to do testing, notify the public when PFAS are found, and remove the compounds when levels have grown too high. Recently, the EPA made $2 billion available to states to rid water of contaminants, including PFAS and will release billions more in upcoming years. The government agency also provides technical support to smaller communities that must soon install treatment systems. The 2021 infrastructure law includes funding for water system upgrade