US Environmental Protection Agency proposes new limits on toxic ‘forever chemicals’
The US’ new proposal to drastically reduce the level of certain PFAS allowed in drinking water could increase pressure on other legislators to take similar steps.
In a new action against the ongoing PFAS pollution crisis, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a new proposal last week that would significantly reduce legal limits of certain PFAS allowed in drinking water. This move could significantly alter how drinking water in the US is tested, sourced, and treated.
PFAS – a family of over 10,000 synthetic chemicals – are used in a myriad of different consumer products, from food packaging to clothing, due to their water and grease-proof properties. These chemicals can persist in our environment for decades – earning them the moniker ‘forever chemicals’. PFAS exposure has been linked to a range of health problems, including the promotion of certain cancers and reduced responses to vaccines in children.
The new limits for US drinking water would mark the first time in over 25 years that the EPA has set new limits for a contaminant in drinking water. The proposal is aimed at six specific PFAS compounds. The new legal concentration of two PFAS compounds – PFOS and PFOA – would be 4 parts per trillion (ppt). PFOS and PFOA are no longer commonly produced, but are still heavily prevalent in the environment as they take decades to break down. Concentrations of four other PFAS chemicals (PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and GenX) would also be limited, based on the hazard of the mixture of them.
If the proposal is made law, it would require water system operators to test PFAS levels in water. Where levels exceeded the legal threshold, actions – including the installation of additional treatments or finding a new water source – would be required.
In the UK there is some pressure building on ministers to tighten regulations on PFAS in drinking water in response to this announcement, Dr Julie Schneider, Chemicals Campaigner at CHEM Trust said, “Drinking water is a major source of exposure to PFAS. We must have stringent safety standards for PFAS in drinking water to protect people’s health, but the standards currently in place in the UK are outdated and not protective enough.”
In England and Wales, the guidance level for PFOS and PFOA is currently 25 times higher than that proposed in the US. The UK guidance does, however, apply to all PFAS, and not just the six proposed in the US.
“The maximum levels of individual PFAS acceptable in drinking water should be drastically reduced based on the most up to date science. A maximum threshold for the sum of all quantifiable PFAS should also be set. There aren’t just six PFAS, hundreds of PFAS have been detected in water samples.” said Dr Schneider
Treating contaminated water for PFAS can be an expensive process, and once it is in the environment there is no simple method to destroy it. The sensible approach to stop these chemicals polluting ourselves and our environment is to prevent their use in the manufacture and processing of products.
As Dr Schneider said “Lowering the maximum threshold won’t magically reduce the levels of PFAS in drinking water. Firstly, the UK government must restrict the use and production of all PFAS. Secondly, water treatment facilities will have to be upgraded to filter out as much PFAS as possible and this has a cost. This cost should not be borne by UK taxpayers but by the producers of the pollution.”