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EPA Acts on PFAS

EPA Acts on PFAS
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Thanks to your advocacy, the agency is proposing drinking water limits on six PFAS chemicals. But there’s a lot more work to do. Action Alert!

For the first time, the EPA has proposed enforceable limits on six PFAS chemicals in Americans’ drinking water. When these standards become final, public water systems will be required to monitor for these six PFAS, notify the public of the levels detected in water, and reduce the levels of these PFAS in drinking water if they exceed the standards. This is a significant step towards protecting public health, but much more needs to be done, so we need to keep up the pressure on Congress and the EPA to address PFAS contamination.

The EPA proposed drinking water standards for PFOA, PFOS, and four other PFAS as a mixture. It is the first time in 26 years the EPA has set a legal limit for a contaminant in drinking water, a sad commentary on the EPA’s failure to adequately protect Americans from exposures to environmental contaminants and the power of the chemical industry in influencing the agency’s actions.

Chemical industry influence is even apparent in the proposed rule issued by the EPA. The proposed Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water are 4 parts per trillion (ppt) each. But in 2022, the agency issued updated interim health advisories for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. In that update, the agency states that the newest science available demonstrates that no level of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water is safe:

The updated advisory levels, which are based on new science and consider lifetime exposure, indicate that some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero [emphasis added].

The limits proposed in the interim update were 0.004 ppt for PFOA and 0.02 ppt for PFOS. Why are the EPA’s enforceable standards for PFOS and PFOA considerably higher than the levels they previously said were safe? Undoubtedly this is due to chemical industry influence.

The other issue, of course, is that while (finally) setting enforceable standards on six PFAS is a start, there are about 14,000 PFAS chemicals. It has taken decades to set standards on PFOS and PFOA, two chemicals that are no longer in production in the US. It simply is not feasible to wait for the EPA to go through the motions on the 13,994 other PFAS before we can have drinking water that is PFAS-free.

It may seem strange that chemicals that have been phased out of production in the US need to be restricted, but this speaks to the pressing need to regulate PFAS as a class. PFOA and PFOS are still found in large quantities in the environment and even in Americans’ blood. This is because PFAS are highly persistent in the environment, which is why they are referred to as “forever chemicals.” Monitoring studies of PFAS have demonstrated ubiquitous distribution in the environment, including humans, animals, drinking water, food crops, as well as remote areas of the Earth. PFAS accumulate in human tissue and organs, have the potential to travel over great distances, and have toxic effects on the environment and human health.

Part of the reason that the EPA has acted on just six chemicals is that these are the most studied. We don’t know a lot about the thousands of other chemicals, but the little research that has been done suggests that the rest of these chemicals are just as dangerous as those for which we have better data.

We cannot wait for the EPA to go through its drawn-out, industry-influenced process of risk assessment on each individual PFAS chemical, which is why scientists are calling on PFAS to be regulated and controlled as a class. We would go a step further and urge Congress and regulators to ban PFAS as a class.  Less than 1 percent of all PFAS have been tested for their hazardous effects. It’s taken the EPA decades to even think about setting enforceable drinking water standards for just two PFAS chemicals; the agency’s current approach of assessing one chemical at a time is akin to doing nothing. And even if the EPA restricts or bans one chemical, industry can simply move on to the next one.

As we’ve reported previously, PFAS are associated with a wide range of negative health effects like cancer, thyroid disorders, developmental problems with fetuses, kidney disease, and more. These chemical compounds are found in numerous products to provide non-stick or water resistant qualities. The levels we are exposed to from any food package or manufactured product will be small, but the danger is in the cumulative effect of all the different exposures, both known and unknown. The bioaccumulation of PFAS in the body mean that even low exposures are concerning. PFAS are endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with our hormones. A small change in hormone concentration—the equivalent of one drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools—is enough to have an effect on the human endocrine system, which impacts growth, metabolism, sleep, and other important bodily functions. Disruptions to our hormone system can lead to changes that cause disease and even death.

We have enough evidence to know that these chemicals pose a real threat to our health. If we hope to stem the tide of contamination that threatens our health, the health of our children, and the health of the environment, we cannot play PFAS whack-a-mole; we must ban these chemicals as a class.

Action Alert! Write to Congress and the EPA, urging them to ban PFAS as a class to protect public health. Please send your message immediately.

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