EPA proposes new rule to crack down on PFAS, forever chemicals in our water
Underground monitoring wells for PFAS near former Wurtsmith Air Force base | Michael Gerstein
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday announced its proposed maximum contaminant levels — MCLs– for six types of toxic PFAS in drinking water and acknowledged that no amount of these compounds is safe.
“EPA anticipates if fully implemented the rule will prevent tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses or deaths,” the agency wrote in a slide presentation obtained by North Carolina Policy Watch.
Known MCLs, they are legally more robust than the agency’s previous health advisory goals, in that they’re enforceable under the Safe Drinking Water Act. If the rules are finalized, public utilities will face a herculean and expensive task of installing advanced treatment systems to reduce the compounds from treated water.
The EPA set an MCL of 4 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS. It is essentially detection level — the lowest concentration that can be reliably detected by most laboratories.
For four other PFAS types, the EPA would measure them as a mixture: GenX, PFNA, PFBS and PFHxS, either individually or combined, should not exceed 1 part per trillion.
According to the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART), there are currently more than 200 confirmed PFAS contamination sites in the state of Michigan with more than 11,000 suspected PFAS sites throughout the state.
“The EPA’s proposed drinking water standards are an important milestone in the fight to protect public health and will save lives in impacted communities on the front lines of the PFAS crisis,” said Tony Spaniola, co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network. “This is an A+ decision by the Biden Administration for front line communities. We urge that the proposed drinking water standards be adopted and implemented with all deliberate speed.”
Depending on exposure levels, PFAS have been linked to multiple health problems, including thyroid and liver disorders, reproductive and fetal development problems, immune system deficiencies and kidney and testicular cancers.
Environmental advocates and concerned residents have long urged the EPA to set legally enforceable standards. Previously, the agency had issued only recommendations.
In June, Radihka Fox, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Water, announced the more stringent lifetime health advisory goals at the national PFAS conference in Wilmington, N.C. Although legally unenforceable, the new and alarming figures were game-changers for public utilities and private well owners, as well as state environmental regulators and the chemical industry.
Essentially, the EPA concluded that no amount of PFAS in drinking water was safe.
“These proposed drinking water limits are a strong step toward addressing the PFAS crisis and protecting our health not just in Michigan, but across the country,” said Sandy Wynn-Stelt, co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network. “Importantly, these proposed limits send a strong message to polluters, especially industries that use these chemicals, that there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ amount.”
In addition to drinking water, PFAS are found in microwave popcorn bags, compost, artificial turf, fast food containers, firefighting foam, water-, stain- and grease-resistant fabrics, and hundreds of other consumer products.
These are the types of PFAS under the proposed new rulePFOA 4 parts per trillion
PFOS 4 ppt
And any individual or combination of these compounds should not exceed 1 ppt:
There are upward of 12,000 types of PFAS; they’re known as “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
If the rules are finalized as written, public utilities would be required to monitor for the six types of PFAS, notify the public of the levels, and reduce the concentrations in drinking water.
Because PFAS can’t be removed by traditional treatment methods, most public utilities would have to spend millions of dollars to upgrade their systems. Some of this funding would be available through the federal infrastructure plan.
“This is going to have a serious impact on water providers across the nation because PFAS is so ubiquitous and systems will be required to test, monitor and remove these substances if the amount found exceeds the MCLs,” wrote Valentina Marastoni-Bieser, vice president of marketing and client engagement for the SL Environmental Law Group, based in New Hampshire.
“We have yet to see a contaminant with such a combination of dangerous attributes. … This is truly unprecedented and likely to be the most expensive environmental hazard in history. Unless the manufacturers responsible for this pollution are held accountable, rate payers — who have also likely been exposed to the toxic chemical — will be the ones to bear the burden of billions of dollars needed to clean the contaminated water.”
The most common advanced systems for public utilities include reverse osmosis and granular activated carbon. But that’s not necessarily the end of the PFAS waste. Contaminated membranes must be disposed of in special landfills.
For the PFOA and PFAS, the agency set an additional MCL goal of 0 ppt. MCLGs, are they’re known, are voluntary and non-enforceable, but signal to the public that this is the level at which no negative health effects are expected. In other words, a level of 0 ppt means no amount of these two compounds is safe.
The EPA has set zero-level MCLGs for other well-known contaminants; lead, for example has a MCL of 5 parts per billion, but a goal of zero.
For the other four compounds, the MCLG is 1 ppt.
A version of this story first ran in the Advance’s sister outlet, NC Policy Watch.
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