EPA Proposes First-Ever Federal Regulations for PFAS in Drinking Water
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If you’ve been keeping up with our articles on PFAS, you’re probably aware of the harmful impact these so-called “forever chemicals” can have on drinking water quality. They’ve gained quite a reputation for their long-lasting nature and cancer-like effects on humans—even featured in the Hollywood film ‘Dark Waters.’
While several states have passed laws regulating certain PFAS in drinking water, there’s no federal mandate to do the same. This means that not all public water systems must test for PFAS or take the necessary steps to filter them out before they reach our taps. But for the first time in over a decade, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is looking to make a historic change.
On March 14, the agency announced its long-awaited proposal to regulate certain PFAS in drinking water. Experts believe this could significantly improve the country’s water quality and protect public health. But before we get into the details of this groundbreaking proposal, let’s take a moment to explore what PFAS are and why it has become necessary to regulate them in the first place.
What are PFAS, and why do they need to be regulated?
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) aren’t your regular chemicals. They are a family of manufactured compounds notorious for their ability to stick around in the environment and the human body for decades. They are also really good at repelling water, oil, and grease. And so, they’re used in hundreds—if not thousands—of everyday consumer products, from waterproof jackets and food packaging to nonstick pans and personal care products.
But why do we need regulations for these chemicals, given their widescale use? Well, there are a few good reasons:
- PFAS pose a significant threat to humans and the environment. Numerous studies have linked exposure to these chemicals with various health issues, including liver damage, immune system dysfunction, hormone disruption, developmental delays in children, and an increased risk of certain cancers. No wonder why communities and health experts are deeply concerned. And let’s not forget about the impact on ecosystems. PFAS can accumulate in wildlife, disrupting their health and reproductive abilities.
- They’ve managed to enter drinking water sources. Even more frightening is that PFAS have been detected in water supplies, soil, and even in the blood of a large percentage of the U.S. population. These sneaky compounds can leach into groundwater and contaminate water sources near industrial facilities, military bases, and areas where firefighting foams have been used. This has left many communities vulnerable to PFAS exposure through tap water, sparking concerns about the safety of drinking water across the country.
- They have limited regulation and monitoring. Historically, only a handful of PFAS compounds have gotten attention, such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). Meanwhile, recent research has uncovered a bunch of other potentially dangerous PFAS substances that have flown under the radar.
So, yes, PFAS are a cause for concern. That’s why we hope the new EPA PFAS regulations will help minimize our risk of exposure to these harmful compounds.
How would the new EPA standards regulate PFAS?
The PFAS family is made of thousands of different chemicals. Under the new rule, water systems would need to monitor and test for six specific PFAS in water, including PFOA and PFOS, two of the most well-known and -studied PFAS. These used to be used to make Teflon and Scotchgard. They’ve been phased out, but PFAS chemicals don’t break down naturally, so they’re still around us. Plus, many of them are still used in products imported from overseas.
The EPA proposes enforceable Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for PFOA and PFOS at 4 ppt (parts per trillion), a significant reduction from the previous 20 ppt. This proposed MCL is the lowest level at which these chemicals can be reliably measured. The EPA is also looking to set Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLG) of zero for both PFAS, meaning there is no safe level of the chemicals in drinking water.
There’s no proposed standard for the remaining four—PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX chemicals—but rather a proposed MCL of 1.0 Hazard Index (unitless) and an MCLG of zero for a mix of them. So, water systems would have to test each individually and evaluate their combined risk. It’s a more complicated approach but considers the increased effects of multiple PFAS occurring together in drinking water.
|PFAS Compound||Proposed MCL||Proposed MCLG|
|PFOA||4 ppt||0 ppt|
|PFOS||4 ppt||0 ppt|
|PFNA||0 (unitless Hazard Index)||0 (unitless Hazard Index)|
If the levels of these compounds exceed the legal limit, the water systems would need to notify the public and take action to reduce the levels. They would also have to determine whether the levels of these PFAS pose a potential risk. The EPA said they may need to install treatment or take other action to reduce PFAS levels, and systems may even need to switch to different water sources.
This proposal would be one of the first updates to the Safe Drinking Water Act’s new chemical standards since 1996. These proposed standards would be way stricter than what the EPA suggested in 2016. Back then, they recommended PFAS concentrations in drinking water to be no more than 70 parts per trillion (ppt). However, based on the latest scientific findings, the EPA issued health advisories in June that revealed PFAS chemicals are much more hazardous to human health than initially thought. It turns out they might pose a danger even at levels thousands of times lower than previously believed.
Will the new EPA standards be enough to protect people from PFAS exposure?
The new EPA standards for PFAS in drinking water are certainly a step in the right direction. However, it is too early to say whether they will be enough to protect people from exposure. There are lingering concerns that raise valid points about the potential risks even if the standards are met.
- Some water utilities may be unable to measure PFAS at 4 ppt reliably and could end up under-reporting. That means some folks could unknowingly be exposed to higher levels of PFAS than they realize.
- The water utility may not have the resources to treat PFAS in their water. This could mean that some people served by the water utility may be exposed to PFAS even if the water is tested and found to be below the MCL.
- Those who depend on private wells for their water supply face their own set of risks. These wells can become contaminated with PFAS from various sources like industrial facilities, landfills, and agricultural runoff.
While the EPA evaluates scientific research on PFAS, we should remember that the agency might tighten the standards over time. Still, even if they don’t provide complete protection against PFAS exposure in water, these new standards are a remarkable improvement over the previous ones.
How will the new standards affect people who drink tap water?
By introducing these new PFAS standards, those relying on tap water can look forward to improved water quality.
- Cleaner and safer tap water. If passed, the proposal will introduce stricter regulations and guidelines to combat toxic PFAS compounds in our water supply. This means water suppliers must step up their game and take adequate measures to reduce the presence of PFAS contaminants. The result? Cleaner and healthier water flowing from our faucets.
- Enhanced quality control measures for peace of mind. The new standards require water suppliers to adopt thorough testing and monitoring procedures. Regular assessment of PFAS levels in the water supply would lessen the time to identify and address potential issues. So, when you take that refreshing sip of tap water, you can do so with confidence, knowing that it has undergone rigorous treatment to eliminate or minimize the presence of harmful PFAS chemicals.
- Better protection for the most vulnerable. Children, pregnant women, and individuals with weakened immune systems are particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of PFAS exposure. The new PFAS standards would provide more protection for these vulnerable populations. Ensuring that tap water contains lower levels of PFAS helps to minimize potential health risks and contributes to the overall well-being of these individuals.
- Promoting long-term health benefits: The benefits of the new PFAS standards would extend beyond the immediate improvements. By curbing exposure to PFAS through tap water consumption, we can potentially reduce the long-term health risks associated with these contaminants, such as cancers, diabetes, liver and kidney problems, etc.
What challenges might the EPA face in implementing the new PFAS standards?
While the EPA recognizes the importance of addressing PFAS pollution to protect water quality and public health, the new regulation has faced criticism, mainly due to cost.
The American Water Works Association (AWWA), a strong advocate for water utilities and backed by scientists, supports setting national drinking water standards for PFAS to ensure the well-being of all consumers. However, in a public statement, they emphasize that implementing advanced PFAS treatment systems would demand significant investments from communities and ratepayers. As if that wasn’t enough, these expenses would pile on top of existing costs for improving infrastructure, such as replacing those pesky lead pipes.
The American Chemistry Council, representing chemical manufacturers, isn’t entirely sold on the proposed standard. The council made a public statement voicing serious concerns about the scientific basis behind it and fear the immense compliance costs associated with the suggested low limits, potentially reaching billions of dollars.
Indeed, treating water to remove PFAS isn’t cheap, especially for small water utilities. The most effective treatment technologies for PFAS are often expensive and require massive upfront investments. This can be a challenge for small water utilities, which may not have the financial resources to invest in these technologies. And this could set the stage for legal battles between utilities and chemical companies and the EPA—as previous health guidelines have.
Therefore, the EPA will need to defend the standards in court and ensure that they are implemented in a way consistent with the law. The EPA is confident that the standards are legally sound but may be challenged in court.
When would the new PFAS rule take effect?
Before the new regulation becomes official, the EPA wants to hear from the public and gather feedback during a comment period. They want to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.
Some groups have been fighting against PFAS and are happy about these new rules. Advocacy organizations like the PFAS Action Group on Nantucket and the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network have been pushing for stricter regulation for a while, so they’re cheering for this announcement.
During the EPA news conference about the new regulation, Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear in North Carolina, expressed her satisfaction. She said, “Today, the EPA’s Office of Water is finally getting us closer to our goals. Nobody should have to worry if the PFAS in their tap water will make them sick one day.”
Even if the plan is officially finalized by the end of 2023, it won’t immediately go into effect. Public water systems will need time to make the necessary changes over the next few years.
What can I do to protect my water from PFAS?
The EPA’s new PFAS plan is still in its early stages. And considering the legal challenges, costs, and other hurdles, it could take quite some time before it becomes official. In the meantime, we strongly suggest that you take action to keep PFAS out of your drinking water.
A good start is to perform a water test to see if the chemicals have also infiltrated your water supply. Laboratory testing—which involves purchasing a water test kit and sending a water sample from your tap for testing at a laboratory—is the most accurate and reliable option.
If the results show that your water contains PFAS, the next step is to install a high-quality water filtration system to remove them.
The Best Water Filters to Remove PFAS from Water
Eliminating PFAS from drinking water typically requires one of two approaches—at least at the residential level: reverse osmosis and activated carbon filtration.
Treating PFAS in Drinking Water with Reverse Osmosis
RO filters are highly effective as they force water through a membrane that captures contaminants, including PFAS, lead, arsenic, nitrates, etc. They surpass activated carbon filters in filtering a broader range of contaminants. Typically, RO systems consist of sediment filters, carbon filters, and an RO membrane.
For example, the Springwell SWRO Under-Counter Reverse Osmosis Filters are designed to rid your water of potentially toxic PFAS. With a 4-stage filtration process combining reverse osmosis and carbon filtration, they remove heavy metals like lead, arsenic, fluoride, PFAS, and other common water contaminants. The SWRO filters are conveniently installed under your kitchen sink, producing up to 75 gallons of treated, PFAS-free water daily.
Filtering PFAS from Drinking Water with Activated Carbon
Activated carbon filters are highly recommended as an alternative to RO filters. The Springwell CF1 whole-house filtration system, particularly, excels in reducing PFAS and other harmful pollutants in your drinking water. This top-tier activated carbon filter effectively removes chlorine, chloramine, PFOA, PFOS, pesticides, herbicides, haloacetic acids, and more. Acting as a point-of-entry system, it filters all the water entering your house, providing comprehensive protection.
The CF1 utilizes Springwell’s cutting-edge ActivFlo technology, premium coconut shell carbon, and filtration media. It goes through four critical stages, allowing sufficient contact time with contaminants at each step to eliminate up to 99% of harmful substances. With multiple lines of defense, you and your family can enjoy healthier and safer drinking water, free from the most dangerous pollutants.
Finally, the EPA announced its first-ever proposal to regulate “forever chemicals” in our water. These persistent compounds have been a menace to water quality and human health for years. But with this proposal, we may see a significant decrease in PFAS levels within our drinking water supplies.
Naturally, there will be pushbacks against this proposal and other hurdles to overcome before it becomes official. As such, it will take time and effort to navigate these challenges for its implementation. But until then, we urge you to consider testing your water for PFAS and explore the benefits of installing a reliable water filtration system, such as a reverse osmosis filter or a whole-house activated carbon filter system. These systems are designed to effectively remove PFAS and other chemicals if detected in your water.
To learn more about our cutting-edge PFAS water filter systems, don’t hesitate to contact Springwell at 800-589-5592 or via our chat service. We are here to assist you and provide the solutions you need for cleaner, safer, PFAS-free drinking water.