EPA Proposes First Ever Federal PFAS Protections for Drinking Water

PFAS (which stands for Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances), also known as “forever chemicals,” are a group of chemicals that stick around for ages in our environment, water, wildlife, and people. From the non-stick in our cookware to the waterproofing in our clothes, rugs, furniture, and food packaging, PFAS are used in many products we commonly use. They are also discharged into our air, soil, and water from manufacturing facilities, airports, wastewater treatment plants, and firefighting foam, posing severe harm to ecosystems and human health. PFAS chemicals have even been found in biosolids that are applied to fields, leading to particularly harmful impacts to dairy producers as cows graze infected fields and PFAS levels bioaccumulate.

Due to widespread use that continues to this day, these chemicals permeate our bodies, contaminate our drinking water, and pollute our air and soil. Even at low levels, PFAS are known to cause serious health problems in humans, including cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, endocrine disruption, and weight gain. Roughly 99% of Americans already have PFAS in their blood and a staggering 200 million Americans may be drinking PFAS-contaminated  water.

They are also an extremely dangerous threat to fish and wildlife. A study by the Environmental Working Group shows that freshwater fish that have been exposed to PFAS create health risks to both humans and wildlife who catch and eat them. Take, for example, the kingfisher – a striking bird known for its beauty and its ability to hunt fish. If the fish they’re consuming contain PFAS, the chemicals can be passed on to the kingfisher, bioaccumulating up the food chain. In fact, PFAS have been found in over 330 species of wildlife around the world, causing them to experience health problems, including increased risk of developmental issues and cancers. The chemicals are also passed from mother to offspring, threatening future survival of species. Other aquatic birds like cormorants contaminated with PFAS have seen reduced hatching success and studies on tree swallows in the Upper Midwest found an association between reproductive impacts and PFAS exposures.

Many states have taken action to turn off the tap on PFAS pollution, but federal action has, until now, been delayed. However, in a historic step forward, this March the Environmental Protection Agency took an important step to address the PFAS contamination crisis in our drinking water. It proposed the first federal drinking water limits for PFAS.

Double-crested Cormorant. Photo credit: Hans Stieglitz

The agency proposes to regulate six highly toxic types of PFAS to help ensure that the water flowing out of our taps is safe: PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, HFPO-DA, PFHxS, and PFBS. The proposed National Primary Drinking Water Regulation allows the EPA to establish legally enforceable levels, called Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), requiring public water systems to monitor for, notify the public about, and reduce the levels of the six PFAS chemicals in our drinking water. PFOA and PFOS will be regulated individually at 4 parts per trillion each and PFBS, PFNA, PFHxS, and GenX will be regulated using a “hazard index” approach to address cumulative risks from a mixture of the chemicals. 

Though this is a critical step to reduce PFAS in our drinking water, there are over 9,000 types of PFAS chemicals that we know about, and the EPA should broaden its approach to regulate more PFAS than the six currently reflected in the proposal.

We urge the EPA to move swiftly to finalize these standards, which will be an important defense against PFAS exposure through drinking water. However, it is critical that we also stop PFAS contamination at its source before it gets into our drinking water and environment in the first place. This will not only help wildlife, which does not drink treated water, but will lessen the treatment costs for downstream communities. The EPA can do so by controlling industrial discharges of PFAS into surface water, addressing PFAS in Clean Water Act permits, cleaning up PFAS-contaminated sites under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, promptly phasing out the use of PFAS chemicals, and expanding research on PFAS contamination on agricultural lands and in fish and wildlife.

Tell the EPA today that you support swift action to address PFAS in our nation’s drinking water!

Published: May 1, 2023