EPA starts long road toward standards for 2 toxins

By Ariana Figueroa | 02/21/2020 01:24 PM EST

 Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) have contaminated drinking water supplies.

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) have contaminated drinking water supplies. Miss Shari/Flickr

EPA announced it will start the process of setting drinking water standards for two toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, that have contaminated drinking water supplies across the United States.

Specifically, EPA will set standards for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which out of a class of more than 7,000 chemicals are the two most studied types of PFAS.

An independent panel of scientists found a probable link between exposure to PFOA and multiple health problems, such as high cholesterol, thyroid disease, and testicular and kidney cancer, as well as pregnancy-induced hypertension. PFOS is linked to similar health problems.


PFAS are used in commercial products such as nonstick cookware and waterproof clothing. The chemicals were also used by the Department of Defense in firefighting foam.

EPA’s regulatory determination under the Safe Drinking Water Act is a step toward proposing limits in drinking water. However, the exact limit the agency will set will not be known for a while.

"We could be many years away," said Scott Faber, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the Environmental Working Group. "What remains unanswered is how protective that drinking water standard will be."

The agency released nonbinding cleanup guidance for groundwater contaminated with PFOA and PFOS at 70 parts per trillion last year, but many health advocates raised concerns that the levels were too high (E&E News PM, April 25, 2019). One part per trillion is a drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

EPA will seek public comment on its proposed regulatory determination for 60 days. The agency also proposed yesterday not to regulate 1,1-dichloroethane; acetochlor; methyl bromide; metolachlor; nitrobenzene; and RDX.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement that yesterday’s regulatory determination shows the agency is committed to addressing PFAS.

"Under President Trump’s leadership, EPA is following through on its commitment in the Action Plan to evaluate PFOA and PFOS under this Act," Wheeler said.

Through the agency’s PFAS action plan, EPA planned to announce whether or not it would regulate the two chemicals by the end of 2019, but it missed that deadline, sparking concern from senators (Greenwire, Feb. 18).

Health and environmental groups remain worried that the process to regulate the chemicals will take years and that the maximum contaminant levels will not be protective enough.

"Time will tell whether it results in meaningful protection," Faber said.

In the meantime, states have moved to regulate the chemicals and set their own standards. Faber said states should continue to regulate on their own because it could take EPA years to promulgate an enforceable standard.

"EPA has a deep, disappointing record of setting new drinking water standards or even reviewing and updating old drinking water standards," he said.

Another concern is how water utilities and consumers will be affected by a new standard. The burden of cleaning up PFAS contamination would fall on utilities and raise the cost of water bills for the public, Faber said.

"It’s absurd that EPA would pass all of the cost of cleaning up corporate pollution to ordinary people that President Trump claims to care about," he said.

EPA’s announcement comes after pressure from Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill. House and Senate lawmakers have worked to attach PFAS provisions to must-pass spending bills and have pressed EPA officials to set drinking water standards for the two chemicals.

House Democrats passed a PFAS package that would require EPA to set drinking water standards for the chemicals and designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances, which would spark federal cleanup efforts, along with a host of other requirements.

House Republicans Greg Walden of Oregon and John Shimkus of Illinois praised EPA’s proposal in a joint statement.

"This is an important step forward under both the EPA’s PFAS Action Plan and the Safe Drinking Water Act to address PFOA and PFOS in drinking water," they said.

EPA yesterday also issued a proposal for limiting imports of products — such as furniture, electronics and other household items — made with PFOA and other long-chain PFAS.

The agency will take public comment on that proposal for 45 days.