EPA expands testing of ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water

By E.A. Crunden | 12/20/2021 04:15 PM EST

A glass of water is filled at a kitchen tap.

A glass of water is filled at a kitchen tap. Cate Gillon/Getty Images

EPA is expanding testing efforts for "forever chemicals" in the nation’s drinking water systems.

Administrator Michael Regan said in an announcement today that the agency has finalized a rule establishing drinking water monitoring for 29 per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and lithium. One of the PFAS is HFPO-DA, better known as GenX, a chemical infamous for contaminating drinking water in North Carolina when Regan ran the state’s environment agency.

In a statement, Regan emphasized EPA’s work on PFAS and pointed to the new rule as further demonstration that the Biden administration is prioritizing a crackdown on the chemicals.

“At EPA, we are advancing the science and the monitoring that are necessary to protect all communities from PFAS,” he said. “With the data provided by this rule, EPA will be able to develop better regulations while the agency, states, and our local partners will be able to make protective public health decisions that are grounded in science.”

The Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, or UCMR 5, has been in the works for some time. Under former President Trump, EPA proposed that utilities be required to test for those 29 PFAS and lithium between 2023 and 2025 (E&E News PM, Jan. 20). When President Biden released his first regulatory agenda in June, EPA also stated it intended to finalize UCMR 5 by the end of this year (Greenwire, June 11).

EPA uses its Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule to assess those pollutants in drinking water. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, all drinking water systems serving between 3,300 and 10,000 people are required to participate in UCMR actions. Subject to funding and laboratory capacity, EPA also looks at a representative sample of smaller drinking water systems around the country.

Data collected through UCMR 5 will help the agency understand "the frequency and magnitude" of PFAS and lithium in drinking water systems, EPA said. While many of the chemicals subject to testing will be unfamiliar to the public, others have generated headlines and uproar. In addition to GenX, for example, the list includes the two most notorious of the chemicals, PFOA and PFOS. Both compounds are linked to widespread national contamination and severe health impacts like certain cancers and kidney disease.

Also included is PFBS, a compound that was the subject of a much-panned Trump administration health assessment swiftly clawed back under Biden (Greenwire, Sept. 1).

Expanded monitoring will help the agency as it conducts both state and regional assessments looking at contamination. That component carries significant environmental justice implications, as EPA will be looking at where pollution in drinking water is intersecting with other burdens plaguing vulnerable communities.

Final results from the effort will be reported to the public through 2026.