What EPA’s New PFAS Plan Could Mean for America’s Drinking Water

They say every cloud has a silver lining, but so does one of America’s most widespread water contamination problems. Amid dwindling hope and growing concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a new strategic road map to combat a group of highly toxic “forever chemicals” linked to a range of health problems.

Known as PFAS, these chemicals have been contaminating America’s drinking water sources for decades and are increasingly turning up in public water systems and private wells across the country. In light of this, the EPA intends to take “aggressive” steps to restrict the release of PFAS into the environment, bolster clean-up efforts in areas where high levels of PFAS have been discovered, and research PFAS to learn more about where they are found and how their impact can be prevented.

While many Americans welcome the announcement, especially after more than two decades of delay, it is only a “plan” at this stage. Plus, it will likely take years before any mandatory standards come into effect. Nevertheless, it’s still good to know what the plan entails, so you can better understand how it seeks to address the rampant PFAS problem plaguing our nation’s drinking water. Luckily for you, this article explains everything you need to know.

First off, what are PFAS, and why are they a problem?

PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, is a family of over 5,000 human-made chemical compounds. Thanks to their strong carbon-fluorine bonds, they are resistant to water, oil, and heat and are known to be very durable. But that also means they don’t degrade in the environment, a quality that has earned them the nickname “forever chemicals.”

The durability of PFAS gives them tremendous commercial value. Today, they’re used in hundreds, if not thousands, of everyday consumer products, including food wrappers, stain-resistant carpets, non-stick cookware, water-repellent sports gear, dental floss, and firefighting foam. A study by the University of Notre Dame also found that many cosmetics used in America contain high levels of PFAS. The compounds were found in concealers, foundations, eye and eyebrow products, and various lip products.

Because of the widescale manufacturing of products containing PFAS and the millions of people using them, PFAS chemicals have managed to leach into groundwater, lakes, and rivers and contaminated public drinking water supplies.

When PFAS-laden products or materials break down in landfills or other areas, they can accumulate in the environment and make their way into our water sources (rivers, lakes, reservoirs, etc.). Often, their next destination is our precious drinking water. That’s according to a recent analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which found that drinking water supplies for more than 100 million people across demographic lines are contaminated with PFAS. It also discovered higher concentrations of PFAS in our drinking water than the EPA previously reported.

But what makes PFAS a problem in our drinking water? We were hoping you’d ask. Research suggests that when people ingest PFAS, the chemicals are absorbed into the bloodstream and accumulate in various locations inside the body. PFAS can stay in the body for long periods. Hence, as people get more exposed to the chemicals from different sources, the levels of PFAS in their bodies increase, potentially leading to serious health issues.

While scientists are still learning about the long-term health effects of prolonged PFAS exposure, current scientific peer-review studies have shown that the chemicals may cause certain adverse health conditions. According to the EPA, exposure to certain levels of PFAS may:

  • increase cholesterol levels;
  • lower infant birth weights;
  • change liver enzymes;
  • interfere with the body’s natural hormones;
  • lower a woman’s chance of pregnancy;
  • increase a women’s blood pressure during pregnancy;
  • cause developmental issues in infants;
  • increase the risk of thyroid disease;
  • cause damage to the liver and kidneys, and
  • increase the risk of kidney and testicular cancer.

Research also links PFAS exposure to suppressed immune systems in young children, potentially making vaccines less effective. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry lists other toxic health effects, such as increasing the risk of kidney and testicular cancers.

So, how does the EPA’s strategic road map intends to tackle the PFAS problem?

Released on Monday, October 18, 2021, the EPA’s “PFAS strategic road map” is said to be an ambitious, wide-ranging strategy designed to crack down on the chemicals by “addressing their whole life cycle and not just reacting when contamination is discovered.”

This road map lays out numerous PFAS-related regulatory goals that the EPA plans to tackle in the next three years. Those regulations will be proposed in autumn 2022 and finalized in autumn 2023.

Under the new plan, the EPA intends to restrict PFAS from getting into the environment in the first place, learn more about which chemicals pose human health risks, and hold polluters accountable.

To achieve this (as per the PFAS strategy), the EPA plans to:

  • Require manufacturers to provide data about the chemicals they produce (this information would be used to inform and create new regulations);
  • Set enforceable drinking water limits for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), the two most well-known and best-studied PFAS;
  • Address PFAS chemicals in groups or categories instead of on an individual basis;
  • Designate some PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law, making it easier to force companies responsible for contamination to pay for the clean-up work or do it themselves;
  • Use enforcement tools to address PFAS releases at facilities and address existing contamination;
  • Continue to advance the science assessing human health risks around PFAS compounds, methods to detect and measure PFAS in the environment, and technologies for drinking water and wastewater treatment;
  • Publish final recommended ambient water quality criteria for PFAS to assist local regulators with developing new standards;
  • Increase the reporting responsibilities for importers and manufacturers of PFAS compounds under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA);
  • Produce a final toxicity assessment for the PFOA replacement GenX and five other PFAS to better understand their human health and environmental effects;
  • Review past actions taken on the chemicals to determine whether they “are insufficiently protective.”

Additional EPA actions under the PFAS road map include calls for more PFAS testing, monitoring, and research into the chemicals’ health effects and how they’re getting into the environment.

How have different industries reacted to the EPA’s plan?

Environmental and public health advocates who have long called for increased oversight of PFAS chemicals reacted with optimism and skepticism to the EPA’s latest promise for action. Let’s start with the positive reactions.

Many environmental groups applauded the EPA’s plan to crack down on PFAS. They’re calling it a positive, long-overdue step forward. They praised the plan to designate some PFAS as hazardous substances, saying it should speed the clean-up of contaminated sites and provide more access to research and funding.

The chemical industry is also supportive of the EPA’s new strategy. The American Chemistry Council said it supports the “strong, science-based regulation of chemicals, including PFAS substances,” and applauded the EPA road map for reinforcing the differences between these chemistries and that they should not be regulated as a single class. That’s because “the 600 or so PFAS substances that are being manufactured or are in use today each have unique properties and uses, from mobile phones to solar panels, and alternatives are not always available,” the council said.

Meanwhile, some environmental advocates and people living in contaminated communities deeply criticized the agency’s new strategy as “weak.” They believe the plan contains more promises and planned actions than concrete policies, especially after 20 years of inaction and frustration.

Public Employees for Environmental Response (PEER) called the plan “woefully inadequate.” The organization said the EPA only promises future regulatory limits on two PFAS in drinking water (PFOA and PFOS) and appears to still rely on voluntary stewardship programs with industries that have failed in the past. PEER also expressed concern that the roadmap is a “whack-a-mole approach” that develops toxicity standards for only seven PFAS.

Public health advocates believe developing rules for a small number of PFAS compounds is ineffective mainly because industries can easily replace regulated compounds with fluorinated non-regulated ones.

The document itself argues that the road map is just a first step, in a paragraph seemingly meant for critics who would push the agency to do more sooner.

“These are not the only actions underway at EPA, nor will they be the last. As the agency does more, it will learn more. And as EPA learns more, it will do more,” the road map states. “As EPA continues to build the evidence base, as regulatory work matures, and as EPA learns more from its partnerships across the country, the Agency will deliver additional actions commensurate with the urgency and scale of response that the PFAS problem demands.”

Does my drinking water contain PFAS?

Whether your drinking water comes from a municipality or a private well, there’s a chance that it contains PFAS. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell if it contains chemicals by looking at it, smelling it, or tasting it.

The best way to find out if your drinking water is contaminated with PFAS is to:

  • Check EWG’s Tap Water Database. The EWG’s Tap Water Database provides valuable information about a particular city or state based on the ZIP code you enter. It displays the water utility’s details, such as its location, the estimated number of people served, the period for which the data is available, and the source (whether groundwater or surface water). The tool will also tell you the total number of contaminants detected in the water supply and how many of them exceed EWG health guidelines. So, punch in your city or ZIP code and see if there are any PFAS contaminants reported in your water supply.
  • Check your water quality report. You can contact your local water provider and request a copy of their latest water quality report. After receiving it, scan through it to see if there have been any recent reports of PFAS contamination in the water supply in your area.
  • Use a home water testing kit. The most affordable and convenient way to check your drinking water for PFAS is to test it with a home water testing kit that tests for PFAS. You can purchase one of these kits from Springwell or any other online or local merchant. Most PFAS test kits take less than 10 minutes to determine whether your water is contaminated with PFAS chemicals.
  • Send a water sample from your home to a private laboratory in your area. You can send a water sample from your tap to a local laboratory for rigorous testing for more accurate results. This method can be costly and time-consuming, but it will tell you if your water is tainted with PFAS and perhaps what specific PFAS are present.

How to Filter PFAS from Your Drinking Water

After checking your water for PFAS, the next step is to purchase and install a home water filtration system. Even if your water doesn’t contain PFAS, a system like this will help to prevent possible future PFAS contamination.

One of the best filtration systems to remove small amounts of PFAS from drinking water is a whole-house activated carbon filtration system. What’s unique about a whole-house filtration system is that, as its name suggests, it treats all the water entering your household, thus reducing the number of entryways for PFAS to enter your home’s water supply. Add activated carbon filtration to the mix, and all the water flowing from every tap and other outlets in your home will be reduced but not removed completely.

Activated carbon filters use adsorption to reduce the amounts of PFAS and many other contaminants in drinking water. The Springwell CF1 whole-house filtration system, in particular, is a state-of-the-art activated carbon filter that can significantly reduce harmful pollutants in water, such as  chlorine, chloramine, pesticides, herbicides, haloacetic acids, and many more.

The CF1 is a point-of-entry system, so it filters all the water entering your house. It uses our ActivFlo technology and the highest-quality coconut shell carbon and filtration media to filter water through four critical stages, removing harmful contaminants during the entire filtration process.

It achieves this by allowing enough contact time between each step of the filtration process and the specific contaminants. That way, the system can target and remove more contaminants, so you and your family can enjoy healthier and safer drinking water with a filtration system that gives you multiple lines of defense against even the most dangerous pollutants.

To learn more about the Springwell CF1 activated carbon whole-house filtration system and how it can reduce PFAS from your drinking water, don’t hesitate to give us a call at 800-589-5592 or send us a message.

But aren’t PFAS already filtered out at public water treatment plants?

Water treatment plants are tasked with supplying customers with clean, safe drinking water. That means treating the water to remove notoriously persistent contaminants, like PFAS, before sending it through the distribution network. But since there is no federal regulation or agreed-upon safe level for PFAS in water, some water providers may not find it necessary to treat them. Further, the physicochemical properties of PFAS make them more complicated to remove using conventional wastewater treatment technologies. Then again, the technology required to treat PFAS on a large scale is also costly to design and build. So, what are customers left to do then?

Cape Fear Public Water Utility Authority customers are feeling the pinch after a new filtration system capable of treating PFAS was supposed to be up and running at the start of this year (2021) isn’t expected to go online until June 2022. Mind you, nearly 300,000 Cape Fear residents have been exposed to PFAS in drinking water for more than 40 years. And even today, several PFAS have been detected in public drinking water systems, private wells, ambient air, groundwater, and local food sources in the community.

That means many Cape Fear residents will likely have to continue dealing with toxic PFAS and their detrimental effects, at least until the new filtration system is fired up and ready to go in the coming months. In the meantime, we urge residents, both in Cape Fear and other American communities, to invest in a whole-house activated carbon filter to remove PFAS at home and protect their families and pets from the chemicals’ harmful effects – an area many water providers are falling short at this very moment.

Final Thoughts

If there’s anything you probably took from this article, it’s that PFAS can be toxic to your health. These cancer-linked chemicals are used in various consumer products, from dental floss to cookware to firefighting foams. As a result, they have found their way into our drinking water sources. Assuming the EPA fulfills its promises to combat PFAS in drinking water once and for all, we should expect a significant reduction in the chemicals in our drinking water. Otherwise, we will be right back where we started: PFAS wreaking havoc in our communities and causing many health problems, including cancer, thyroid problems, low birth rate, etc. Luckily, should the EPA disappoint, you can still ensure your safety with a whole-house activated carbon filtration system installed in your home.