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Strict PFAS limits will make drinking water safer for 100 million Americans

The Biden administration has made a historic move by finalizing strict limits on certain “forever chemicals” in drinking water, marking a first in national drinking water standards. The chemicals in question, known as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), have been linked to a myriad of health issues, including cancers, and are notorious for their persistence in the environment. 

The decisive action by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates utilities to reduce these chemicals to the lowest levels that can be reliably measured, impacting the water quality for an estimated 100 million Americans.

Widespread use of PFAS

PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals that have been used across a wide range of products – from nonstick pans to firefighting foams – due to their water and oil repellant properties. 

Despite their widespread use, PFAS are incredibly resilient, failing to degrade in the natural environment and accumulating over time. This has led to widespread environmental contamination and significant concerns over their impact on human health, including associations with low birth weight, liver disease, and various cancers.

Types of forever chemicals targeted

The new rule targets specifically two common types of forever chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, limiting their presence in drinking water to four parts per trillion.

Additionally, the initiative sets limits for three other types of PFAS in drinking water, including GenEx Chemicals, to 10 parts per trillion. This is in direct response to concerns about their prevalence and toxicity, particularly highlighted in regions like North Carolina.

Life-changing rule on PFAS

EPA Administrator Michael Regan says the rule is the most important action the EPA has ever taken on PFAS. “The result is a comprehensive and life-changing rule, one that will improve the health and vitality of so many communities across our country,” said Regan.

The initiative aims to significantly reduce exposure to PFAS in drinking water and the associated health risks. The rule is anticipated to cost about $1.5 billion annually to implement, but is expected to prevent nearly 10,000 deaths over the coming decades and substantially decrease incidences of serious illnesses.

Concerns and financial implications 

However, this landmark rule has not been met without contention. Water utilities have raised concerns over the financial implications of installing treatment systems to meet these new standards. The costs, they argue, are steep and will inevitably be passed on to consumers, potentially exacerbating inequities for small communities with fewer resources. 

The American Water Works Association, representing the industry, has critiqued the EPA’s cost estimates and highlighted challenges, including a shortage of skilled workers and filtration materials.

Pervasive threat of PFAS

Despite these challenges, the need for stringent PFAS limits has been echoed by health and environmental advocates. The move to regulate these chemicals at such low levels reflects a growing recognition of their pervasive threat and the necessity of decisive action to protect public health. 

The Associated Press reports that last June, a utility outside Philadelphia that serves nearly 9,000 people learned that one of its wells had a PFOA level of 235 parts per trillion. This was one of the highest known concentrations in the country at the time, and the source of the contamination is still unknown.

“I mean, obviously, it was a shock,” said Joseph Hastings, director of the joint public works department for the Collegeville and Trappe boroughs. Hastings noted that installing treatment systems could be a multi-million dollar endeavor, a major expense for a small customer base.

Public confidence in drinking water 

The new regulation is “going to throw public confidence in drinking water into chaos,” said Mike McGill, president of WaterPIO, a water industry communications firm.

Support for the rule extends beyond the realms of public health and environmental protection, touching on personal stories of loss and activism. 

The family of Amara Strande, a young woman whose death from a rare cancer has been attributed by her family to PFAS exposure, represents a poignant example of the human toll behind the statistics. Their involvement in advocating for stricter PFAS regulations speaks to the broader impact of these chemicals on communities and the importance of the Biden administration’s initiative.

As the nation moves to implement these new standards, the efforts will undoubtedly face hurdles, including legal challenges and the logistical complexities of upgrading water treatment systems. Yet, the establishment of the first-ever national limit on PFAS in drinking water marks a significant step forward in the ongoing battle to safeguard public health from these contaminants.


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