Jun 15, 2022 - Energy & Environment

EPA issues health advisory for "forever chemicals" in drinking water

 Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan testifying before a Senate panel in May 2022.

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan testifying before a Senate panel in May 2022. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency released a new health advisory Wednesday for pervasive industrial "forever chemicals" in drinking water.

Why it matters: The EPA now believes, based on newly available science, that certain types of these chemicals are more dangerous than previously thought.

How they work: Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — dubbed "forever chemicals" for their durability — are a family of nearly 5,000 types of chemicals that resist degradation by repelling oil and water and withstanding high temperatures.

  • They are used in several different nonstick, water-repellent and fire-resistant industrial and consumer products, including cookware, some food packaging and fire fighting materials.
  • Because they resist degradation, PFAS can persist in the environment for years while accumulating in people, livestock fish and wildlife.
  • People can be exposed to PFAS in several different ways, including from drinking water, food, air and consumer products.

By the numbers: The EPA's previous health advisory set levels for two PFAS compounds — PFOA and PFOS — at 70 parts per trillion (ppt).

  • In its revised advisory, it dramatically reduced the levels considered safe to .004 ppt for PFOA and .02 ppt for PFOS.
  • It also for the first time set levels for two other PFAS compounds: 10 ppt for GENX and 2000 ppt for PFBS.
  • One ppt is the equivalent of one drop of contaminant in 21 million gallons of water, according to the U.S. Navy.

Yes, but: The EPA has still not set enforceable limits for PFAS through the Safe Drinking Water Act.

What they're saying: "People on the front-lines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long," EPA administrator Michael Regan said in a statement Wednesday.

  • "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 concerned families from this pervasive challenge," he added.
  • The EPA said that $1 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure package passed last year will be made available in grant funding for communities affected by PFAS contamination.

The other side: The American Chemical Council, which represents major PFAS producers like 3M and Dupont, said Wednesday that the EPA's new advisories "will have sweeping implications for policies at the state and federal levels."

  • It said the EPA's new revised limits for PFOA and PFOS "cannot be achieved with existing treatment technology and, in fact, are below levels that can be reliably detected using existing EPA methods."

The big picture: The health effects of low-level exposure to PFAS are not definitive, but large doses may affect growth and development, reproduction, the immune system, thyroid and liver function, and may increase a person's risk of cancer, according to the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • The CDC has detected multiple PFAS in nearly all of the people tested in its National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals between 1999 and 2016.
  • Detection does not imply that the recorded levels cause adverse health effects, but it does indicate there has been widespread exposure to PFAS in the U.S., the CDC said.

Go deeper: Study links "forever chemicals" to elevated blood pressure

Editor's note: This article has been updated with comment from the American Chemical Council.

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