Biden proposes first national limits on toxic ‘forever chemicals’

The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency is seen in Washington, DC, U.S., January 19, 2020.

Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed the first nationwide restrictions on so-called ‘permanent chemicals’ in drinking water after finding the compounds are more dangerous than previously known, even at undetectable levels.

The chemicals, known as perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been purposely phased out by US manufacturers. But they resist breakdown in the environment and can persist in the human body when consumed. As a result, most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS and have the chemicals in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since the 1940s, chemicals have been used to make waterproof, non-stick and stain-resistant products, and are found in food packaging, cookware, clothing and fire-fighting foam, among other things. The chemicals have been linked to health problems, including certain cancers, liver damage and low birth weight.

The Environmental Working Group, an environmental organization, found 41,828 industrial and municipal sites known to produce, use or suspect the use of PFAS, with some of the highest levels found in the cities of Miami, New Orleans and Philadelphia.

The EPA’s proposed standards cover six PFASs that have polluted the nation’s drinking water supplies. The proposal would regulate PFOA and PFOS as individual contaminants and regulate four other PFAS – PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and GenX Chemicals – as a mixture.

For PFOA and PFOS, the agency has proposed a binding limit for drinking water of four parts per trillion per chemical. And for the rest, the EPA has proposed a binding limit based on a hazard index designed to take into account the cumulative impact of chemicals.

The agency said it expects to finalize the settlement by the end of the year. The EPA said if fully implemented, the rule would prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of illnesses attributable to PFAS.

“Communities across the country have suffered for far too long from the pervasive threat of PFAS pollution,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “The EPA’s proposal to establish a national standard for PFAS in drinking water is based on the best available science and would help provide states with the guidance they need to make decisions that best protect their communities.”

The regulations would also require public water systems to monitor chemicals, notify the public and reduce PFAS contamination if levels exceed proposed regulatory standards.

“Today’s proposal is a necessary and long overdue step to address the national PFAS crisis, but what comes next is equally important,” said Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz, attorney at Earthjustice.

EPA must resist efforts to water down this proposal, move quickly to finalize health protection limits on these six chemicals, and address the remaining PFASs that continue to poison drinking water supplies and harm to communities across the country,” Kalmuss-Katz said.

The EPA was first alerted to the presence of PFAS in drinking water in 2001, but over the years has failed to set a nationwide legal limit. Last year, the agency issued health advisories that set health risk thresholds for chemicals close to zero, replacing the 2016 guidelines that set a higher threshold.

Representatives of U.S. chemical companies, such as the American Chemistry Council, had opposed the Biden administration’s designation of PFAS chemicals as hazardous and argued that the rule was costly and ineffective.

Last year, the agency also called on states and territories to request $1 billion under the bipartisan Infrastructure Act to address PFAS in drinking water, especially in underserved communities. The grant funding will provide technical assistance, water quality testing, contractor training, and installation of centralized treatment technologies and systems.

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