© 2024
Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

For the first time, EPA moves to limit 'forever chemicals' in drinking water

glass of water
Eve Zuckoff

The Environmental Protection Agency today announced a plan to regulate and reduce harmful PFAS chemicals from drinking water. It’s the first time the federal government has moved to set a national drinking water standard for the so-called “forever” chemicals. The proposal could take effect later this year, setting new practices in many regions while expanding on existing standards in the few states — including Massachusetts — that already regulate the synthetic chemicals.

The proposed regulations would move to seriously limit six PFAS chemicals, targeting two that are particularly notorious: PFOA and PFOS. The agency is proposing to regulate them at 4 parts per trillion. To visualize that, experts often draw on analogy: it’s roughly the equivalent of four droplets in an Olympic-sized swimming pool filled with water. That high standard is an indicator of just how dangerous regulators believe these chemicals are. It follows last year’s findings by the EPA that almost no level of exposure to the chemicals is safe, and PFAS could cause harm at levels “much lower than previously understood.”

PFAS — the shorthand for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — is a group made up of some 14,000 known chemicals. The chemicals have the ability to give products oil-, water-, and stain-resistant properties, so they can be found in all kinds of consumer products, including carpets, microwave popcorn bags, pans, rain jackets, dental floss, makeup and guitar strings.

“What began as a so-called miracle groundbreaking technology meant for practicality and convenience quickly devolved into one of the most pressing environmental and public health concerns in the modern world,” said Michael Regan, EPA administrator.

The problem is that these chemicals, which most people are exposed to daily, accumulate in the human body, and they’ve been linked to health problems like cancer, fertility issues, liver damage, thyroid disease, immune system disorders, and others.

Under the proposed regulations, public water utilities — often run by towns and cities — would have change the way they operate.

"When finalized, this proposed regulation will require public water systems to monitor these chemicals. It will also require systems to notify the public and reduce the levels of these PFAS, as prescribed,” Regan said. "Folks, this is a tremendous step forward in the right direction. We anticipate that when fully implemented, this rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-related illnesses.”

The EPA’s proposed regulations are thrilling to longtime PFAS-control activists.

“The proposed EPA drinking water standard is a promising first step in safeguarding our communities from the wide-reaching impacts of PFAS contamination," Ayesha Khan of Nantucket PFAS Action Group said in a statement.

The state of Massachusetts does regulate six PFAS already, but the proposed federal regulations go further in many ways. The state regulates four of the chemicals that the federal proposal would also regulate. But because the EPA would regulate two chemicals that Massachusetts doesn’t, and Massachusetts is regulating two chemicals the EPA wouldn’t, Bay Staters would benefit from limits on a total of eight PFAS chemicals in drinking water. In addition, the federal regulations would set a lower limit than what's currently allowed in Massachusetts.

Overall, the commonwealth is considered one of the nation’s leading states when it comes to PFAS protections, and one of about two dozen states that have any limits on PFAS in drinking water. That’s because of the state leadership, and the fact that Massachusetts has had serious issues with PFAS contaminating drinking water in the past.

For example, the EPA designated Otis Air National Guard Base on Joint Base Cape Cod a Superfund site in 1989 because the military dumped harmful chemicals, fuel and firefighting foams into the ground throughout the 20th century, which contaminated Cape Cod’s drinking water. As a result, some towns on the Upper Cape have received money for remediation.

“We have an ion exchange filter system at our Fresh Pond well that was paid for by the United States Air Force because of the contamination from Joint Base Cape Cod,” said Michael Reghitto, acting water superintendent for the town of Falmouth.

But this federal regulation could still be transformative in Massachusetts. Currently, under Massachusetts law, public water utilities regulate the six PFAS chemicals at 20 parts per trillion. The EPA’s stricter limit at 4 parts per trillion could have major implications, and as a result are raising criticism in some quarters.

Concerns specifically center around costs and who bears them. If a town without many resources finds PFAS in drinking water that exceeds these new standards, it may need to come up with millions of dollars — whether that’s from the federal government, grants, or ratepayers — to purchase technology that can filter out the chemicals.

“This could be a big financial burden for towns that have PFAS, but don't know the source,” Reghitto said.

On the other hand, some critics of the regulations are concerned it doesn’t go far enough.

“We can no longer afford this chemical by chemical approach when there are over 14,000 PFAS," said Kyla Bennet, science policy director with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). "And they’re talking about regulating six.”

In that sense, the regulations are something like the carnival game of whack-a-mole; if manufacturers are limited from using one of the chemicals, they can switch to another. It would be better, she said, to pass legislation recently filed by Massachusetts lawmakers to regulate PFAS as a class and prohibit it from consumer products.

The EPA’s regulations will now undergo a 60-day public comment period. EPA Administrator Michael Reagan said he hopes they take effect by the end of the year.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.