EPA announces new drinking water standards for PFAS chemicals

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced drinking water standards on Wednesday that are intended to protect Americans from contamination from PFAS chemicals. This is the first time there has been a nationwide, legally enforceable drinking water standard for PFAS chemicals. “Drinking water contaminated with PFAS has plagued communities across this country for too long,” EPA […]

EPA announces new drinking water standards for PFAS chemicals

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced drinking water standards on Wednesday that are intended to protect Americans from contamination from PFAS chemicals.

This is the first time there has been a nationwide, legally enforceable drinking water standard for PFAS chemicals.

“Drinking water contaminated with PFAS has plagued communities across this country for too long,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a press release.

He said the current administration has prioritized tackling PFAS contamination. 

“Our PFAS Strategic Roadmap marshals the full breadth of EPA’s authority and resources to protect people from these harmful forever chemicals,” he said. “Today, I am proud to finalize this critical piece of our Roadmap, and in doing so, save thousands of lives and help ensure our children grow up healthier.”  

The rule requires public water utilities to monitor for some of the most common PFAS chemicals. The utilities have three years to complete the initial monitoring and begin providing the public with information about the levels of PFAs in their drinking water. They also have five years to implement strategies to reduce PFAS levels if the monitoring shows chemicals in exceedance of the maximum contaminant levels allowed under the new standards.

There are approximately 66,000 public drinking water systems and the EPA estimates that between 6 percent and 10 percent of them may be required to reduce PFAS levels in order to meet the new standards.

Related: Source of PFAS contamination in Santa Fe County remains unknown

The new standards don’t cover every type of PFAS chemical, however they do address some of the more common constituents.

The standards set limits of four parts per trillion for PFOA as well as PFOS and 10 parts per trillion for PFNA, PFHxS and HFPO-DA.

When it comes to the mixture of four PFAS chemicals that together are known as Gen X— PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and HFPO-DA—the standards are based upon the hazard of the mixture.

“As a result of the announcement that’s been made today, 100 million people will soon have safer water,” Scott Faber with the Environmental Working Group said during a press conference. The Environmental Working Group has been advocating for greater protections against PFAS chemicals for years.

Faber cited the EPA estimate that approximately 100 million people are currently consuming drinking water that exceeds the new standards for PFAS.

PFAS has been linked to various health conditions including cancer and liver disease.

The EPA also announced $1 billion in funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law to assist states and territories fund PFAS detection and treatment systems that will help water utilities meet the new standards. 

“These new limits confirm that these chemicals are toxic at very low levels,” Olga Naidenko, vice president of investigations at the EWG, said in a press release. “While these six PFAS are some of the most well-studied PFAS, nearly every week there are new scientific studies documenting an increasing number of ways that the whole class of PFAS could damage our bodies and threaten our health.” 

Hope Grosse from the Pennsylvania-based Buxmont Coalition for Safe Water described the EPA’s announcement as a “monumental victory for all Americans.”

Grosse said she has been impacted by PFAS exposure. She learned about the presence of PFAS in her drinking water in 2014.

“This is both an emotional day and a day that restores my faith in our leaders,” she said. “Polluters have known for decades about PFAS (that) was building up in our blood and making us all sick.”

Related: NMED secretary: PFAS drinking water standards are a start, but not a silver bullet for addressing the contamination

New Mexico waterways

In New Mexico, much of the attention around PFAS has focused on the contamination from military bases. But that is not the only place where PFAS contamination is occuring. 

A team from the U.S. Geological Survey in coordination with the New Mexico Environment Department monitored PFAS in the Rio Grande and found that urban areas are the most significant contributor to contamination in the state’s largest river.

The team of researchers released two studies documenting this.

The first study was an assessment of PFAS contamination in waters across New Mexico. During that study, the researchers sampled water from 117 groundwater wells and 18 surface water locations between August 2020 and October 2021. The team detected PFAS in all of the major rivers and found that concentrations were highest downstream from urban areas.

“The comprehensive survey of New Mexico’s major rivers and evaluation of groundwater quality across the state is critical in helping NMED protect these valuable resources,” Andy Jochems, Source Water Protection Team Lead from the New Mexico Environment Department, said in a press release. “The science provided by the USGS helps us make informed decisions about our drinking water resources into the future.”  

That led to a follow up study focused on the Rio Grande as it flows through Albuquerque. The scientists found that PFAS levels were 10 times higher in downstream samples than compared to areas upstream of the urban area.

“Our study highlights the complex nature of chemicals associated with urban areas and their impact on river systems,” Kimberly Beisner, USGS hydrologist and lead author of the studies, said. “The data show that urban areas can be a major contributor of PFAS to rivers, with constantly changing concentrations due to wastewater discharge, stormwater runoff and other sources.”

People who are concerned about PFAS in their drinking water can take steps at home to reduce their exposure. Granular activated carbon, reverse osmosis systems or ion exchange resins are three types of filters that the EPA says can remove some of the common types of PFAS from drinking water. These filters can cost between $20 and $1,000.

Drinking water is one way that people can be exposed to PFAS, however the chemicals are widespread throughout the environment and can be found in a variety of household products including cosmetics, furniture, carpets and cleaning supplies.

As more people become aware of the dangers of PFAS, federal and state agencies have taken steps to reduce the ways people are exposed. For example, in February, the EPA announced that grease-proof material that contains PFAS chemicals can no longer be used in food packaging.

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