For the first time, the US government plans to regulate the presence of “forever chemicals” in drinking water. PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are ubiquitous in the modern world. They’re found in many household items, including non-stick Teflon pans and dental floss, and can stay in water and soil for generations. What’s more, PFAS exposure has been linked to a whole host of health problems, including cancer, liver damage, asthma and developmental issues among children.
On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposed national drinking standard that would require public utilities to monitor drinking water for PFAS contamination and notify the public if the levels of those chemicals exceed the new standard. The proposal calls for classifying Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) as individual contaminants that water utilities would be mandated to detect at a level of four parts per trillion. Under an Obama-era recommendation, the agency previously recommend that water contain no more than 70 parts per trillion of PFAS chemicals. The EPA estimates the new guidelines will prevent “thousands” of deaths and “tens of thousands” of illnesses that are attributable to PFAS poisoning.
EPA is proposing the first-ever national standard to limit PFAS in drinking water. This action is a major step to protect communities from PFAS pollution, leveraging the latest science and building on existing state efforts to limit PFAS. pic.twitter.com/iBw91oL5Xh— U.S. EPA (@EPA) March 14, 2023
“EPA’s proposal to establish a national standard for PFAS in drinking water is informed by the best available science, and would help provide states with the guidance they need to make decisions that best protect their communities,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “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.”
With today’s announcement, the EPA will accept public comment on the proposal for 60 days before it takes effect. A handful of states, including New Jersey, Vermont, Michigan and New York, already regulate the chemicals on their own. That said, PFAS water contamination is a national problem. One 2020 study estimated that as many as 200 million Americans have been exposed to the chemicals through their tap water. More recently, scientists have found polyfluoroalkyl substances in human breast milk.