EPA sets targets for slashing PFAS in drinking water

By E.A. Crunden, Ariel Wittenberg | 06/15/2022 01:31 PM EDT

PFAS and GenX illustration collage.

EPA today announced new health advisories for two PFAS compounds, PFBS and GenX, and new advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS. Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News (illustration); EPA (text); Jenn Durfey/Flickr (faucet); Freepik (man with glass); Wikipedia (GenX chemical formula); PxHere (xrays)

EPA today announced new drinking water health advisories for the four most notorious “forever chemicals,” a move meant to curb exposure to the toxic substances that could have broad implications for the military and municipalities.

“People on the front-lines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “That’s why EPA is taking aggressive action as part of a whole-of-government approach to prevent these chemicals from entering the environment and to help protect families from this pervasive challenge.”

EPA has never before addressed safe drinking water levels for the compounds PFBS and GenX. Both have been linked to health problems like liver and kidney issues, while GenX has raised concerns around certain types of cancer. Today, the agency said that drinking water is only safe to consume if it contains less than 2,000 parts per trillion of PFBS and 10 ppt of GenX.

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Regulators are also replacing EPA’s preexisting health advisory level for PFOA and PFOS, which are linked to a wide range of health problems, including liver and kidney impacts as well as various cancers. PFOA in particular has been singled out as a likely carcinogen by EPA. The new levels are 4 parts per quadrillion for PFOA and 20 ppq for PFOS — “near zero levels,” as one EPA official described it, that are far lower than the previous level of 70 ppt that was set for both in 2016.

Radhika Fox, EPA’s water chief and co-chair of the agency’s PFAS task force, announced the new health advisories at a national PFAS meeting in Wilmington, N.C. Fox, who has defended her agency’s pace in addressing PFAS, underscored in her remarks that a thorough, evidence-based approach is shaping EPA’s crackdown.

“Today’s 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,” she said.

The agency also announced $1 billion in grant funding for small and disadvantaged communities dealing with PFAS contamination. Stemming from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, that money represents the first allotment of a total $5 billion over five years that can be used for efforts like technical assistance, water quality testing and contractor training. The funds are sure to be welcomed by municipalities, which have implored legislators for help as they have struggled to pay for massive groundwater cleanups and drinking-water treatment plant expansions due to PFAS contamination.

EPA first previewed that it would revisit its health advisories for PFOA and PFOS last November, arguing that the growing body of science around the chemicals underscored the need for new warnings (E&E News PM, Nov. 16, 2021). Prior to that, the agency had already found GenX deeply toxic to humans (Greenwire, Oct. 25, 2021).

And the announcement also marks a key development for PFBS, a compound that stirred controversy under the Trump administration. E&E News reported last September that key political appointees under the prior leadership worked to dump and replace a health assessment for PFBS, over the ferocious objections of career staff (Greenwire, Sept. 1, 2021). President Joe Biden’s administration swiftly walked back that watered-down assessment and replaced it with the original findings, which offered far starker conclusions about the compound’s health implications (Greenwire, April 8, 2021).

The health advisories collectively come as EPA is working on enforceable regulations for both PFOS and PFOA. The agency is expected to propose standards limiting those compounds in drinking water this fall, according to a blueprint released last fall (Greenwire, Oct. 18, 2021).

Though the new drinking water advisories are not enforceable, they could have significant impacts for communities suffering from PFAS contamination.

In one key example, a consent decree between North Carolina and Chemours Co., which manufactures GenX, requires that the company provide clean drinking water to communities whose existing supplies exceed any final EPA drinking water health advisories (Greenwire, July 21, 2021). Local advocacy groups that have been critical of EPA’s slow approach to drinking water regulations have already expressed support for the agency’s steps today.

“Today, Biden’s EPA restored our faith in humanity,” said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, in a statement. “These ‘forever chemicals’ are toxic at trace amounts. We knew it five years ago when our friends were getting sick and dying.”

Also in the eye of the storm, the Defense Department is already staring down billions in cleanup costs stemming from PFAS contamination. But the military has notably bristled at state thresholds for PFOA and PFOS, pointing to EPA’s 2016 cutoff level of 70 ppt as a guiding light, rather than far lower levels present in various parts of the country. Strengthening the health advisories for those chemicals, and expanding concerns to include GenX and PFBS, will likely have major implications for the Pentagon’s cleanup efforts (E&E Daily, Dec. 10, 2021).

Much of the military contamination comes from the use of aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, which contained PFOS. When that compound was phased out, it was often replaced with PFBS. Both are targeted by EPA’s announcement today.

Regulations on the horizon

The new advisories are likely lower than any final EPA drinking water standard will be for the same compounds. That is because the science-based advisories are solely predicated on how consuming the chemicals could affect a person’s health over the course of a lifetime. Those advisories consider PFAS exposure not only from drinking water but also from other sources, like soil and food, and look specifically at what levels would have negative health effects for particularly sensitive groups, like children.

By contrast, Safe Drinking Water Act regulations require EPA to also take economic factors into account when writing actual rules, like how much it would cost to limit the chemicals in drinking water. Still, an EPA official told reporters yesterday that the information in the health advisories “is informing the drinking water standard” that EPA will propose for PFOA and PFOS.

It was EPA’s ongoing work on drinking water regulations that led to lowering the health advisories for PFOA and PFOS, the official said, explaining that as staff reviewed new science available about the compounds in just the past few years, “we saw that there are negative health effects at levels much lower than we had previously understood.” EPA did not want to wait to provide that new information in a proposed regulation, and so decided to lower the health advisory levels.

If EPA does follow through on its pledge to set drinking water standards for PFOS or PFOA, it would be the first time since 1996 that the agency has proposed new standards under SDWA.

The agency has been under immense pressure from public health experts and environmental groups to take a more hard-line approach to PFAS. Advocates say the agency should be regulating all PFAS together as a class, rather than pursuing rules for just a couple of compounds at a time.

EPA is now weighing that advice, and said that while its proposed rule expected at the end of this year will be “focused on PFOA and PFOS,” the agency “will also look at other groups of PFAS as we consider the science behind the proposed rule.” It is not yet clear whether the proposal would regulate just PFOA and PFOS or other compounds, or if the agency might be planning future regulations placing limits on larger groups of chemicals. It is also not clear exactly how many PFAS might constitute a “group.” Last fall, the agency released a testing strategy that did divide PFAS into subgroups in order to assess their attributes and the risks they pose, potentially offering a preview of how regulators might ultimately address the compounds (Greenwire, Nov. 11, 2021).

Whatever the agency decides to do, the EPA official said, “will very much be informed by the best available science.”

News greeted with indignation, vindication

Advocates and affected communities have been the most vocal actors pushing EPA to crack down on PFAS. Many have panned the agency’s approach to date as overly slow, particularly in the face of immense suffering as people across the country grapple with contaminated water, soil and air.

Reactions today, however, have been largely approving — including from key communities that have often felt left out of EPA’s decisionmaking process.

Donovan’s group Clean Cape Fear, for example, is part of a coalition that has repeatedly pushed EPA to crack down on Chemours, a major source of PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear River, and to regulate the chemicals as a class. That back-and-forth has led to litigation and tension (E&E News PM, Jan. 27). While offering praise, Donovan underscored that more will be expected. “There’s still a lot of work needed before our community can heal, and we plan to keep holding the EPA accountable,” she said.

Major national groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council also applauded EPA’s moves, as did more local groups in deeply affected states like Michigan.

Not everyone is happy, however. Among those already raising concerns about the move is the American Chemistry Council. The powerful trade group represents a slew of PFAS manufacturers and has strongly advocated against EPA’s wider crackdown, arguing that the chemicals are diverse and that regulators do not have a grasp on the science underlying their chemistry.

ACC sent a letter last week to the Office of Management and Budget arguing that the health advisories should be subject to formal interagency review as well as public review and comment due to their wide-reaching implications.

Tom Flanagin, a spokesperson for the organization, shared a statement reacting to EPA’s announcement and building on the qualms expressed in its letter. “[Lifetime health advisories] assume a lifetime of exposure. While they are non-regulatory levels, they will have sweeping implications for policies at the state and federal levels. Getting the science right is of critical importance,” ACC argued, adding that the levels put forward by the agency cannot be achieved with existing treatment technology or even detected using current methods. Members of the waste and water industries have raised similar concerns in pushing back against EPA’s crackdown efforts (Greenwire, May 24).

Chemours, the company at the heart of significant back-and-forth over GenX, called EPA’s analysis of the compound “fundamentally flawed” and said it was contemplating legal action in response to the health advisory.

“The agency disregarded relevant data and issued a health advisory contrary to the agency’s own standards and this administration’s commitment to scientific integrity,” Chemours said in an unattributed statement that also called the advisory “scientifically unsound.”

Some Republican lawmakers are also lashing out at EPA. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the powerful ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, accused EPA of acting “radically and rashly” on the issue. While she applauded the agency for its infrastructure funding, she argued that the advisories will create massive hurdles for industry.

“EPA’s announcement will only increase confusion for water systems’ compliance efforts and further complicate risk communication to the public,” said Capito, whose state has faced some of the most infamous PFAS contamination to date. “Setting these impossible levels misleads the public into thinking their water isn’t safe, even when that may not be true.”

Democrats meanwhile raised questions about the announcement for different reasons. Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) said the advisories are “welcome news” for many communities but argued that more should be done to hold industry members accountable, including establishing limits for PFAS discharges.

And various advocates and experts also voiced concerns over components of EPA’s move. Erik Olson, who directs health and food work for NRDC, questioned the advisory for PFBS, which is significantly higher than the other four chemicals and seemingly out of step with some of the available science reflecting its health risks. He also questioned the ongoing lack of a class-based approach to the compounds.

“It’s time to regulate all PFAS with enforceable standards as a single class of chemicals,” said Olson, who wants to see a 1-ppt limit on all PFAS in drinking water. “Any other approach will leave every one of us at risk from these forever toxics for decades to come.”

Organizations like the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility echoed those calls, with the Environmental Working Group also argued that EPA should move swiftly in setting enforceable standards for compounds beyond PFOA and PFOS.

The National PFAS Contamination Coalition, which is composed of a slew of groups mainly from affected areas nationwide, also maintained that a class-based standard will remain a priority. Still, the group expressed a sense of vindication shared by advocates who have argued for years that virtually no level of chemicals like PFOA and PFOS is safe.

“The EPA had the courage to follow the science, something we’ve been demanding for years,” said Stel Bailey, co-facilitator of the coalition. “This is a step in the right direction.”

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