A group of human-made “forever chemicals” found in drinking water, cosmetics and food packaging called polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl (PFAS) is much more dangerous to humans than previously thought, warned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) earlier this month.
These highly durable compounds have been used to make nonstick cookware, moisture-repellent fabric and flame-resistant equipment since the 1940s, and today, we’re seeing them accumulate in nature and in the human body. Lifetime exposure to two of the most common chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, can result in compromised immune and cardiovascular systems and is linked to decreased birth weights.
The EPA released lifetime drinking water health advisories after assessing PFOA and PFOS in recent human health studies and finding that lifetime exposure at levels as low as 0.004 and 0.02 parts per trillion, respectively, can have adverse health effects. The advisory indicates that the level of contamination should be below those extremely low thresholds, but some have raised concerns with these conclusions.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, pointed out that the levels of contamination listed by the EPA are so low that they are difficult to detect, calling the new guidance “impossible.” Additionally, the chemical industry’s main trade group, the American Chemistry Council, stated that while it supports developing enforceable standards, the EPA should not have issued advisories before outside experts finished reviewing the underlying research.
In contrast, Sen. Maggie Hassan (N.H.), who helped negotiate the bipartisan Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021, called the EPA’s new advisory a “step in the right direction” to reduce PFAS exposure. Hassan recognized that the EPA’s findings will allow them to better address the threat of these toxic chemicals, “but there is still much to do.”
Although the federal government does not currently regulate these chemicals, the EPA is planning to release the National Primary Drinking Water Regulation for PFOA and PFOS this fall, which will enforce penalties on water utilities that fail to meet the agency’s mandatory standards. Until then, the guidance also invited states and tribes, specifically small or disadvantaged communities, to apply for $1 billion in grants to address PFAS and other contaminants. This funding comes from President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help communities affected the most by PFAS contamination, which includes communities near military bases where foams full of PFAS were used for decades to fight jet-fuel fires.
Health advocates have also raised concerns of the inefficiency of regulating just two PFAS. Thousands of dangerous distinct compounds have been discovered, and senior strategic director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Erik Olson says that a “whack-a-mole approach to regulating them” is much less effective than approaching them as a group.
While there haven’t been any recent updates, Radhika Fox, Assistant Administrator for Water at the EPA, told reporters that the agency is considering more widespread regulations to address other compounds.