The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed limiting the amount of harmful chemicals “forever” in drinking water to the last level that tests can detect, pushing for long-awaited protection it said: it will save thousands of lives and prevent serious diseases, including cancer.
The proposal marks the first time the EPA has regulated a group of toxic compounds that are widespread, dangerous and expensive to remove from water. PFAS, or polyfluorinated substances, are not released into the environment and are associated with a wide range of health issues, including severe childhood and kidney cancer. The agency says drinking water is a significant source of PFAS exposure to humans.
“The science is clear that long-term exposure to PFAS is linked to significant health risks,” Radhika Fox, EPA administrator for water, said in an interview.
Fox called the federal proposal “transformative change” to increase the safety of drinking water in the United States. The agency estimates that the rule could reduce PFAS exposure to nearly 100 million Americans, decreasing rates of cancer, heart attacks and birth complications.
The chemicals have been used since the 1940s in food products and industry, including in pans, food packaging and foam fights. Their use is now increasing mostly in the US, but some still remain.
The proposal set strict limits of 4 parts per trillion, the lowest level that can be reliably estimated, for two common types of PFAS compounds, known as PFOA and PFOS. In addition, the EPA wants to include four other types of PFAS. Water providers will have a PFAS monitor.
The public will have an opportunity to comment, and the agency may make changes before issuing the final rule, which is expected by the end of the year. Water providers will have to adjust the time.
The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators said the plan is “a step in the right direction,” but compliance will be challenging. Although federal funds are available, “significant rate increases will be required for the majority of systems” that must remove PFAS, the group said Tuesday.
Public environmental and federal health advocates have called for regulation of PFAS chemicals for years. Over the last decade, the EPA has repeatedly imposed voluntary safety thresholds for its own, voluntary chemicals, but no limits for commercial water providers.
Public concern has grown in recent years as testing shows PFAS chemicals in a growing list of communities that are often near manufacturing plants or Air Force bases.
So far, only a handful of states have enacted PFAS regulations, and none have set limits as strict as what the EPA is putting forth. By regulating PFOA and PFOS in the smallest amounts that tests can detect, the EPA is setting the strictest possible standards that are technically feasible, experts said.
“This is a historic moment,” said Melanie Benesh, president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. “There are many communities that have had PFAS in their water for decades that have waited a long time for this news to come out.”
His plan, he said, will protect everyone, including vulnerable communities, and reduce disease on a large scale. The EPA wants water providers to conduct testing, notify the public when PFAS are found and remove the compounds when levels are too high.
Utilities that have high levels of contaminants are typically given time to fix the problems, but could face fines or the loss of federal grants if the problems persist.
The proposal would also regulate other types of PFAS, such as GenX Chemicals, which manufacturers used to replace PFOA and PFOS generated from consumer products. A cumulative health plan would control the threat of those compounds and mandate treatment if that threat is too high.
“Communities across this country have suffered for too long from the current threat of PFAS pollution,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan. The EPA’s bill could prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses, he said, “and represents a major step forward.” to protect all of our communities from these dangerous contaminants.”
Emily Donovan, co-founder of Pure Cape Fear, which advocates for PFAS-contaminated tracts in North Carolina, said it’s important that those who release compounds in the environment clean up costs.
“Today is a good step toward tackling our nation’s major PFAS public health crisis by including commercially-related PFAS like GenX,” he said.
The EPA recently made $2 billion available to states to remove contaminants like PFAS and will release billions more in the coming years. The agency is also providing technical assistance to smaller communities that will soon be forced to install treatment systems, and is funding infrastructure upgrades for the water system in 2021.
But it will still be expensive to install new utilities, and the burden will be especially heavy on towns with fewer facilities.
“This is a problem that has been handed down to the utilities through no fault of their own,” said Sri Vedachalam, director of water equity and climate resilience at Environmental Consulting & Technology Inc.
Many communities will need to adapt to the new PFAS requirements by removing toxic lead pipes and replacing old water mains prone to rupture, Vedachalam said.
Fox said there is “no one-size-fits-all answer” to how communities will prioritize their needs. He said there are billions of dollars in federal funds available for water improvements.
The proposed rules would give deductibles and utilities access to federal funds for drinking water upgrades, according to Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that works to get toxic chemicals out of food, water and clothing. and others.
Several states have already imposed PFAS drinking water limits. Officials in Michigan, which has the strictest standards for each state, said the costs of removing PFAS in communities where it was found were reasonable.
If regulations are implemented and enforced, many communities will learn to drink water with harmful compounds. When they learn the problems, they can stop the water sound altogether, their safety is diffused, and instead to diffuse the water. It’s often a more expensive option and one that can have negative health effects if people replace water with sugary drinks that cause cavities and contribute to heartburn and other health problems.
“This,” said the Fox, “is such an outpouring of anxiety among men.”
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