The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed its first-ever national drinking water standard to prevent several different types of “forever” chemicals within a class of compounds known as PFAS from entering drinking water sources. 

EPA officials made the widely expected announcement March 14 in North Carolina near Cape Fear River, which has had a history of containing high levels of the chemicals and is subject to a 2019 remediation settlement between the state environmental agency and chemical firm Chemours. 

The proposed rule would set legally enforceable levels of six per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water. If finalized, the rule would require public water systems, beginning in 2024, to monitor for the substances—known as PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS, PFBS, PFNA and HFPO-DA or GenX—in drinking water. If levels exceed the standard, water utilities would be required to notify the public and take steps to reduce the water pollution.  

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the standard “is informed by the best available science and would provide states with the guidance they need to make decisions that best protect their communities.” The rule could prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illness, EPA said. 

The proposed rule is a component of the Biden administration's comprehensive strategy to address PFAS contamination. Last August, EPA proposed designating PFOA and PFOS– the two types of PFAS that have been most studied–as “hazardous” substances under the nation’s Superfund law, which would enable the agency to require polluters to pay for cleanups at contaminated sites. 

‘Forever’ Chemicals

PFAS chemicals, which are widespread in the environment and notoriously difficult to get rid of, do not dissipate on their own and have been found in water, soil, and human tissue. According to the Sierra Club, more than 200 million people in the U.S. live in areas with what it considers to be unhealthy levels of PFAS in tap water. Various PFAS chemicals have been linked to cancer, heart attacks and strokes. 

EPA lowered its lifetime health advisory levels last June for PFOS and PFOA–from 70 parts per trillion combined to 20 and 4 parts per quadrillion, respectively. The new drinking water standard would set the limit for PFOA and PFAS in drinking water to 4 parts per trillion. EPA also proposed monitoring for any mixture of PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and GenX chemicals using a hazard index calculation to determine if the combined levels pose a potential risk.  

While groups ranging from environmental organizations to drinking water utilities say they don’t deny that PFAS is a problem, most point to the manufacturers' producing PFAS as responsible for paying for the bulk of cleanup. 

Sonya Lunder, Sierra Club senior toxic policy advisor, says the drinking water standard would reduce illness and save lives. But EPA should next issue rules to limit the production and use of PFAS chemicals, she adds. “In the long term, polluting industries, not the public, must pay the full cost of removing these forever chemicals from the environment,” Lunder said in a statement. 

Brian Redder, manager of regulatory and scientific affairs for the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, said in an email that the group is on board with EPA’s decision to regulate PFOA and PFOS because of its known health dangers. There are funds within the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act -- $10 billion -- tasked specifically for addressing emerging contaminants like PFAS. 

But Redder says even that will likely not be enough. “Our primary concern is providing safe, affordable drinking water, so we encourage more federal support to prevent these costs from falling to ratepayers,” he contends.

While his group still is reviewing the 1,000-plus page proposal, it represents the largest publicly-owned water agencies across the U.S. and will provide “robust…[and] constructive feedback” to EPA.

Additionally, AMWA plans to request for the comment period to be extended from 60 days after publication in the Federal Register to 90 days, he says.