The Environmental Protection Agency took two long-overdue preliminary actions toward regulating the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS in Americans’ tap water, committing to set legal limits for the two most notorious PFAS compounds and to test public water systems for more than two dozen others.
PFAS are known as forever chemicals because they do not break down in the environment and are linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental harms, and reduced effectiveness of vaccines. They contaminate over 2,300 sites in the U.S.
The EPA made a final determination to set drinking water limits for PFOA, a PFAS compound once used to make Teflon, and PFOS, a chemical that used to be an ingredient in Scotchgard. This determination is the first step in a long process for setting enforceable nationwide limits. PFOA and PFOS have largely been phased out of commerce, and several states have set their own legal limits, but the EPA has, for 20-plus years, failed to set a federal standard.
The agency also announced that between 2023 and 2025, it will require most public utilities to test their tap water for 29 other PFAS chemicals, plus the heavy metal lithium. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, every five years the EPA orders testing for up to 30 unregulated contaminants. In December 2019, Congress gave the EPA explicit authorization to test for all measurable PFAS chemicals in addition to any other chemicals monitored under the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule.
In response to the commitment to set legal limits for PFOA and PFOS, Melanie Benesh, legislative attorney at the Environmental Working Group, said: "The EPA’s announcement that it will finally regulate PFOA and PFOS in drinking water is long overdue. For decades, countless communities drank water with toxic levels of PFOA and PFOS without any recourse from the EPA or responsible polluters.
"While today’s regulatory determination is an important first step in finally getting PFOA and PFOS out of drinking water, affected communities should not have to wait any longer for relief. The incoming Biden administration must take swift action to set strong, enforceable standards that protect vulnerable populations like children, the elderly, workers and service members.
"The new administration must also regulate additional PFAS chemicals in drinking water to make sure that overburdened communities are protected."
In response to the EPA’s plans to test drinking water for other PFAS chemicals, Benesh said: "While it is important that Americans will finally get more information about these 29 PFAS chemicals in drinking water systems throughout the U.S., the EPA should not wait until 2025 to take more aggressive action on these and other PFAS chemicals.
"Congress made clear that monitoring for these PFAS chemicals under the UCMR should be in addition to, not in place of, the EPA’s work to monitor for other unregulated contaminants. The incoming Biden administration should do as Congress intended and expand the list of contaminants the EPA will test for."
In addition to the drinking water actions, last Thursday the EPA released an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, seeking information about how to regulate PFOA and PFOS in the environment. The agency first promised in May 2018 to address legacy pollution by designating PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund law, but it did not propose to do so in the notice released last week. The new proposal merely seeks information about whether the EPA should regulate PFOA and PFOS under our environmental cleanup laws.
In response, Benesh said: "The notice of proposed rulemaking released by the EPA last week is a shameful delay tactic, falling far short of what is needed to jumpstart the cleanup process in contaminated communities and to hold polluters accountable.
"Years after promising to address PFAS contamination through Superfund, the EPA has opted to kick the can down the road rather than taking meaningful action. This is an insult to the people who were exposed to toxic PFAS chemicals for decades and who will have to wait even longer for justice."