following years of concern, the US Environmental Protection Agency moved this week to clean up drinking water, announcing the nation’s first standards for six “permanent chemicals” found in tap water. It’s a foreboding, informal name for the man-made chemicals that coat nonstick pans, food containers, and waterproof clothing before ending up in your drinking water. These chemicals, known as PFASs, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are ubiquitous and are found in almost everyone, including newborns. you drink.
If the EPA rule is finalized, public water companies will have to monitor chemicals and keep two well-studied chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, below 4 parts per billion levels, 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. It marks not only the first US national standard to regulate levels of these chemicals, but would also allow for widespread data collection to see which communities are most affected by contamination. Implementing these much-needed fixes could take years and will be expensive. Still, experts see this as an important first step in rolling back the PFAS problem, and one that could vastly improve water quality across the country.
“These are very strong, they protect health, and they are a historic move to really limit exposure to pollution from these chemicals,” says David Andrews, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization focused on advocacy. health and the environment. “There are a lot of opportunities to build off of this.”
The PFAS regulation is not yet a reality; it is a proposed measure that could be finalized this year after a public comment period. If formally adopted, it will create new costs for many public water systems, requiring not only testing but also filtration of water when contaminants are detected. Utilities would have three years to comply with the rule, so some communities might 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 EPA. They can also raise the risk of several types of cancer, including prostate, kidney, and testicular cancer.
The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a report in 2022 saying that healthcare providers should assess and test patients who are most likely to have elevated PFAS exposure based on where they live or work. And EPA officials estimate that cleaning up the water will prevent thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of cases of serious illness in the US.
Regulating the two commonly studied chemicals, as well as four others, is “a really important first step,” says Katie Pelch, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. . But there is more to learn about this vast group of chemicals and their prevalence. “This is still just one proposal to regulate six PFASs out of a class of thousands of chemicals,” she continues. Processes to remove PFAS could also address other chemicals found in drinking water, such as those in pharmaceuticals, flame retardants, and consumer products.