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EPA proposes new rule to crack down on PFAS, forever chemicals in our water

By: - March 14, 2023 10:09 am

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The EPA today 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 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 .

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.

These are the types of PFAS under the proposed new rule
PFOA 4 parts per trillion
PFOS 4 ppt

And any individual or combination of these compounds should not exceed 1 as a hazard index.
A hazard index is the sum of the chemicals in a mixture and is used to characterize risk.

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.

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.

“No one should ever wonder if the PFAS in their tap water will one day make them sick,” said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear in a prepared statement. “… Today is a good step towards tackling our nation’s massive PFAS public health crisis by including commercially relevant PFAS like GenX.

“We now need every office within the EPA, and all other federal agencies, to use a whole of government approach to address PFAS as a class, stop all PFAS exposures at their source, make responsible parties pay for the clean-up, and give overexposed communities access to health monitoring.”

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 material must be disposed of in special landfills.

Drinking water from many public utilities in North Carolina have concentrations of PFAS above the EPA’s proposed regulatory levels.

Public drinking water in Brunswick County, which is upgrading its northwest plant, contains 7.48 ppt of PFOS, according to test results from last month.

Likewise, PFBS and PFHxS were at 1.72 and 1.89 ppt, respectively.

And in 2019, the City of High Point had levels above the EPA’s proposed regulations, according to the NC PFAS Testing Network:

  • PFOA 4.4
  • PFOS 9.4
  • PFBS 3.9
  • PFHxS 10.1

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 they signal to the public that this is the level where no negative health effects are expected.

In other words, if an MCLG is 0 ppt, that means the compounds aren’t safe at any detectable level.

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 MCL goal of zero.

For the other four compounds, the MCLG is 1 ppt.

Environmental advocates and concerned residents have long urged the EPA to set legally enforceable standards. Previously, the agency had issued only recommendations.

Last 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. 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.

“We welcome the strong drinking water standards proposed by EPA. They should be adopted,” said Brian Buzby, executive director of the NC Conservation Network. “As North Carolina continues to combat forever chemicals, we urge state leaders to pursue solutions that will prevent the release of toxic forever chemicals before they ever enter our rivers, lakes, and other drinking water sources.”

This story has been corrected to explain that GenX, PFNA, PFBS, PFHxS have a hazard index of 1, not a maximum contaminant level.

The Cape Fear River is contaminated with PFAS, some of it from groundwater seeps originating at the Chemours plant in north Bladen County. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.