EPA issues warning on ‘forever chemicals’ risks in drinking water

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has this week issued new warnings for synthetic pollutants in drinking water, suggesting the toxins can still be harmful even at levels so low they are not detectable.

The family of toxic chemicals known as per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been used for decades in household products such as non-stick cookware, stain- and water-resistant textiles and in firefighting foam and industrial products.

They are colloquially referred to as ‘forever chemicals’.

The updated drinking water health advisories for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) replace ones the EPA issued in 2016. The advisory levels, based on new science that considers lifetime exposure, indicate that some health problems may still occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero and below EPA’s ability to detect.

Scientists have linked some PFAS to a number of potential health scares, including cancers, liver damage, and low birth weight.

The chemicals which do not break down easily, are not yet regulated, though it is understood that he EPA is set to issue proposed rules in coming months to regulate PFAS. Until the regulations come into effect, the advisories are meant to provide information to states, tribes and water systems to address PFAS contamination.

The EPA also said it would release the first $1 billion funding tranche to tackle PFAS in drinking water, from a total of $5 billion in funding in last year’s infrastructure law. 

The funds would provide states technical assistance, water quality testing and installation of centralized treatment systems.

“[The] actions highlight EPA’s commitment to use the best available science to tackle PFAS pollution, protect public health, and provide critical information quickly and transparently,” said Radhika Fox, the EPA’s assistant administrator for water.

The agency encourages entities that find PFAS in drinking water to inform residents and undertake monitoring and take actions to reduce exposure. 

Individuals concerned with PFAS found in their drinking water should consider installing a home filter, it said.

The American Chemistry Council industry group  has been critical of the EPA, suggesting that it rushed the notices by not waiting for a review by the agency’s Science Advisory Board. The group said it is concerned that the process for developing the advisories was “fundamentally flawed”.

While the new levels could have significant consequences, they still represent “baby steps” in addressing the larger PFAS problem, said Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

“The EPA should be congratulated on today’s actions, but those kudos should be tempered by the knowledge that these are just four of thousands of these toxic substances,” he said. 

“Health advisories are a long way from enforceable limits and an even much longer way to actual clean-ups where these substances are finally removed from our waters, soil and food chain.”