The Biden administration announced on Tuesday that officials are proposing putting limits on levels of PFAS chemicals in drinking water for the first time, marking a win for environmental advocates who have long been warning about the detrimental health effects of the “forever chemicals.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing limits for six of the most toxic PFAS compounds. PFOA and PFOS, the most widely detected PFAS chemicals, will be limited to 4 parts per trillion, while the levels of four other PFAS chemicals will be measured and limited as a mixture. The onus will be placed on public utilities to monitor for and get rid of the chemicals.
“Communities across this country have suffered far too long from the ever-present threat of PFAS pollution,” EPA Administrator Michael S. 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.”
PFAS chemicals are extremely widespread and dangerous for public health, with links to low birth weights, increased risk of some cancers, hormone disruption and a reduction in immune responses. Contamination in drinking water has also been specifically linked to an increased cancer risk.
Labeled “forever chemicals” because they never break down in the environment, PFAS compounds are created during manufacturing processes and are used in processes like fracking. They are found everywhere in the environment, lingering in air, water, soil, food, food containers, clothes, furniture, dust, dental floss, toilet paper, and more, ranging from the most densely populated city centers to the Arctic Ocean.
Their proliferation is why research has estimated that nearly all Americans have some level of the chemicals in their bloodstreams — including newborn babies. Drinking water is a major culprit; a 2020 study found that over 200 million people are exposed to drinking water with PFAS levels above 1 part per trillion in their homes.
Research has found that military bases are especially likely to be contaminated with PFAS chemicals; entire communities have been polluted in these areas of high PFAS pollution, with whole families contracting cancer as a result.
The EPA recently found that essentially no level of PFAS exposure is safe, and that the chemicals could be harmful at levels “much lower than previously understood.” The agency has pledged to take a “whole of government” response against PFAS pollution.
Due to concerns over health effects, regulators have worked to reduce PFAS chemicals from production processes but have not gotten rid of them completely. Environmental groups say that the federal government could be doing far more to protect the public from PFAS chemicals, and have praised the EPA for proposing action against drinking water contamination.
“Today’s announcement by the EPA is historic progress,” Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement. “More than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their tap water. Americans have been drinking contaminated water for decades. This proposal is a critical step toward getting these toxic poisons out of our water.”
Mark Ruffalo, a Truthout board of advisers member and director of Dark Waters, a 2020 film about a lawsuit against DuPont over PFOA contamination in drinking water, also praised the EPA action.
“After decades of delay, President Biden’s EPA has delivered a drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS which, when finalized, will be the toughest in the nation,” Ruffalo said in a statement. “My message to polluters is simple: after poisoning your workers and neighbors for decades, it is time to make our public health, not your profits, our top priority. My message to communities devastated by PFAS pollution is equally simple: help is finally on the way.”
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