After years of concern, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided this week to clean drinking water, announcing the nation’s first standards for six “eternal chemicals” found in tap water. It’s an ominously informal name for man-made chemicals that coat nonstick cookware, food wrappers and waterproof clothing before ending up in the water you drink. These chemicals, known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are invasive and found in just about everyone, even newborns babies.
If the EPA rule is finalized, public water companies will have to monitor chemicals and keep two widely studied chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, below levels of 4 parts per trillion, around the lowest measurable threshold. . The rule will also regulate the combined amounts of four other types of PFAS chemicals.
Experts say the proposal is monumental. This is not only the first US national standard to regulate levels of these chemicals, but it would also allow for large-scale data collection to see which communities are most affected by contamination. Implementing these much-needed fixes could take years and be costly. Still, experts see this as an important first step in tackling the PFAS problem, and one that could dramatically improve water quality across the country.
“They’re very strong, health protective, and a landmark decision to really limit exposure to contamination from these chemicals,” says David Andrews, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization focused on protection of health and the environment. “There are a lot of opportunities to take advantage of that.”
PFAS regulations are not yet a reality; it is a proposed measure that could be finalized this year after a public comment period. If officially adopted, it will result in new expense for many public water systems, requiring not only testing but also filtering of water when contaminants are detected. Utilities would have three years to comply with the rule, so some communities may not see results until 2026.
The dangers of PFAS chemicals have become increasingly clear. High levels of exposure can cause fertility problems, developmental delays in children and reduced immune responses, according to the APE. They may also increase the risk of several cancers, including prostate, kidney and testicular cancer.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine of the United States have published a report in 2022 saying health care providers should counsel and test patients who are more likely to have elevated exposure to PFAS based on where they live or work. And EPA officials estimate that cleaning the water will prevent thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of cases of serious illness in the United States.
Regulating the two commonly studied chemicals, along with four others, is “a really important first step,” says Katie Pelch, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. But there is still much to learn about this vast group of chemicals and their prevalence. “This is still just a proposal to regulate six PFASs over a class of thousands of chemicals,” she continues. PFAS removal processes could also address other chemicals found in drinking water, such as those in pharmaceuticals, flame retardants, and consumer products.