EPA Issues New Standards for PFAS ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Drinking Water

Interview with Mary Grant, Public Water for All campaign director at Food & Water Watch, conducted by Scott Harris

The Biden administration’s Environmental Protection Agency issued new standards on April 10 for six of thousands of toxic variations of PFAS – polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances in drinking water, often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they don’t degrade easily in the environment. The standards will require water utilities across the U.S. to reduce them to the lowest level they can be reliably measured. Officials say utilities will have five years to comply with the new limits, which will reduce exposure for 100 million people and help prevent thousands of illnesses, including cancers.

The EPA estimates the total cost of compliance would be $1.5 billion a year; but the American Water Works Association puts that figure closer to $3.8 billion. Since 2019, the industry that uses PFAS chemicals in their products has spent more than $100 million lobbying Congress to prevent or weaken government regulation of these toxic substances.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Mary Grant, Public Water for All campaign director with the group Food & Water Watch. Here, she assesses the EPA’s new PFAS standards for drinking water, advocates for the regulation of the entire class of these chemicals, and requiring the industry to pay for the clean up of their toxic pollution.

MARY GRANT: PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, as you said, are also known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t really break down on their own in the environment, so they last a really long time. These are, as you said, lab-made chemicals, synthetic chemicals created by chemical companies like DuPont in the 1940s. And they’ve been added to a range of products, from Teflon pans to firefighting foam.

They’re used a lot on airports to spray down fires, a lot of military uses for the similar reasons. A lot of industrial uses, a lot of products that are labeled water-resistant, stain- resistant. These likely have PFAS in them. One type of PFAS could be contained in them. And so since the 1940s, chemical companies have been adding this to a variety of products.

And now, PFAS are so widespread they estimate that 97 percent of people have it in their blood; detectable levels in their blood. We’re finding it in more than half of the world’s groundwater and in even the rainwater and remote regions of the Arctic contains PFAS, because these don’t break down on their own in the environment — very long lasting. And in the United States, at least 100 million people have water contaminated with PFAS at levels that exceed the new legal limits that EPA just proposed. So this is a really widespread and far-reaching problem.

SCOTT HARRIS: Review for our audience the relative strengths and weaknesses of the new EPA regulations on PFAS. And I think you just mentioned it now that there are many types of PFAS, maybe some that are not covered by this EPA regulation.

MARY GRANT: Yeah. So EPA’s regulation covers 6 out of more than 12,000 different types of PFAS. So it’s just a handful. Half a dozen of the chemicals are regulated. This includes the two most studied chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, as well as four other chemicals, including GenX, the shorter chain, newer form of PFAS.

So the strength is that EPA didn’t weaken its regulation after it proposed it last year. There was a lot of industry lobbying. The chemical industry has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying for a very long time to fight effective regulations. So it was a real victory that EPA finalized these regulations in time, got it through the door and actually set enforceable legal limits, the first nationwide limit on these types of PFAS. But again, there are limitations, it’s only half a dozen out of 12,000 different kinds.

We are urging EPA to go further and regulate the entire class of PFAS. We can’t just keep regulating half a dozen here, half a dozen there. The process takes so long to get across the finish line. And again, that’s another limitation, too. Utilities have five years to comply with the new limits. So these don’t go into effect until 2029.

So we’re still a ways off from actually having those legal enforceable limits. But it’s still a really powerful move. It really shows the strength of the community groups that have been fighting against PFAS for decades. Decades, people have been fighting against PFAS and urging EPA to take action. And that announcement last week is kind of the most effective action they’ve taken so far to address PFAS in our water.

SCOTT HARRIS: These chemicals, PFAS, seem so dangerous. They don’t break down and they cause cancer and other reproductive health issues. Many other maladies. Is it within the government’s power to outlaw the manufacture of these things in the future as you know government regulators have done with many other chemicals.

MARY GRANT: Absolutely. And that’s another piece of the puzzle we need to get across. We need to ban all non-essential uses of PFAS and they have the power to do that. They can designate them as hazardous and they can just stop the manufacturing. PFOA, PFOS, those old forms of PFAS. They weren’t phased out, but then what happened is the chemical companies started making newer forms of PFAS, the shorter chain ones like GenX.

So we can’t just keep replacing one PFAS with another one just because that other one is less studied, and so we don’t have the toxicological data to say that it’s gonna cause cancer. But that’s just because we haven’t studied it because it’s new. We need to just turn off that spout, stop introducing new PFAS that are not essential for essential items. And we need to make sure that we’re stopping the manufacture of it. So we’re not just keeping new forms going on to the market every day, because it’s just digging the hole deeper.

SCOTT HARRIS: Mary, is there hope? And there isn’t much time before the next election, but is there hope that, representatives there at the EPA are listening to groups like yours to strengthen and do a follow-up on this announced regulation from last week.

MARY GRANT: We are hoping that any day we’ll hear something about the polluter pay regulations, but we don’t think it’ll be enough. We are urging Congress to take more action to pass the PFAS Action Act, which would require EPA to look at studying and regulating the entire class of PFAS. It would also take steps to put a moratorium on the manufacture of new PFAS. It would help ensure that we get across the finish line and hold polluters accountable to pay to clean up different forms of PFAs and then also move toward regulating the entire class of PFAS under those polluter pay rules.

So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. And because of the uncertainty with the future administration, we really need congressional action to make it the law of the land that we’re going to take a comprehensive approach to address this toxic crisis.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Mary Grant (15:02). More articles and opinion pieces are found in the Related Links section of this page.

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