EPA proposes regulations on 6 toxic 'forever chemicals' in drinking water

The federal government has released proposed regulations for the toxic chemicals known as PFAS in drinking water. The regulations would require every municipal water system in the country to test for, and limit, the presence of six PFAS chemicals.

The proposed regulations would limit the two most common PFAS chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — to four parts per trillion in drinking water, close to the lowest level at which the chemicals can be detected.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also proposing a standard for four other PFAS chemicals — PFHxS, PFBS, PFNA, and GenX — in drinking water. The proposal would regulate the cumulative mixture of these chemicals to keep them below a level considered dangerous to human health.

"These toxic chemicals are so pervasive and so long-lasting in the environment that they've been found in food, soil and water, even in the most remote corners of our planet," said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan at a press conference Tuesday. "When fully implemented, the rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-related illnesses."

The last time the EPA issued drinking water limits for a new contaminant was for arsenic in 2006.

The full effect of these proposed federal regulations on individual states is still unclear. However, implementing them would be a monumental undertaking likely to cost billions of dollars nationwide.

Massachusetts is one of 10 states with existing limits on PFAS, officially called per- and polyfluorinated substances, in drinking water. Set in 2020, the state limit is one of the strictest in the country: 20 parts per trillion for the sum of six PFAS chemicals, including PFOA and PFOS.

The state now must rewrite its current PFAS standard to align with the EPA. This will likely result in lower state limits, at least for PFOA and PFOS, said Wendy Heiger-Bernays, a toxicologist at the Boston University School of Public Health. Another challenge, said Heiger-Bernays, is that the six PFAS chemicals listed in the proposed EPA regulation are not the same six currently regulated in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts is required to re-evaluate its PFAS limits every three years. The first review is scheduled for this year, and will incorporate the proposed federal regulations, according to a statement from the state Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP).

"MassDEP is committed to continuing our nation-leading efforts to combat PFAS contamination in public drinking water, private wells and other sources of exposure, and will continue to provide funding and technical assistance to water systems working to address PFAS contamination," said the statement from MassDEP spokesman Ed Coletta.

The statement also noted that Massachusetts will adopt PFAS drinking water regulations that are at least as stringent as the federal standards.

"Massachusetts has a lot of work to do, but now I think they have something to work with," said Heiger-Bernays.

Heiger-Bernays acknowledged that the cost of getting PFAS levels so low in drinking water across the country will be "mind-boggling." In Massachusetts, small towns like Littleton and Barnstable have each already spent about $30 million to deal with PFAS, for example, and costs could increase if towns need to meet even stricter standards.

Massachusetts has already allocated $170 million to PFAS cleanup, and the federal government recently announced it will give the state $38 million to address emerging contaminants, like PFAS, in drinking water. The state Legislature has proposed creating a new PFAS trust fund, and Gov. Maura Healey included $1.6 million for PFAS air and water monitoring in her proposed budget.

Despite these millions of dollars in proposed and allocated funding, water industry advocates expressed concern that stricter regulations will cost communities even more — either because more towns will now need to treat their water for PFAS, or towns already treating their drinking water may have to swap out filters more often.

"While treatment is possible, treatment is expensive, and right now the majority of costs are falling on ratepayers," said Jennifer Pederson, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Works Association, an industry group.

"We have quite a bit of infrastructure backlog that needs to be addressed. And so unfortunately when we have to deal with new regulations like this, some of the other really important public health items get pushed back," she added. "For instance: replacing pipe that's 100 years old."

PFAS chemicals were invented in the early 20th century and are used in thousands of products, from food packaging to waterproof jackets and firefighting foam. Over time the chemicals wash or flake off these products into landfills, soil and water.

Because PFAS molecules don't break down easily, they are often called "forever chemicals." In Massachusetts, they're widespread in ground and surface waters, rivers and even Cape Cod ponds. Studies estimate that 98% of Americans have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood.

All public water systems in Massachusetts have been tested for six PFAS compounds, and 170 water systems had at least one source over the state limit. Almost all the systems have found ways to address PFAS in drinking water, either by adding filters, finding a new water source or blending contaminated water with another source to dilute PFAS levels.

Federal and state regulations do not apply to private wells, where property owners are responsible for testing and any filtration.

Environmental activists applauded the EPA's proposal, while also expressing frustration over how long it took for the draft regulations to be released. The proposal was sent to the White House for review in October.

“It's just very disappointing,” said Melanie Benesh, vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. "Every delay means that it's going to be longer before communities that have already been waiting a very long time to have safe drinking water are actually able to get access to that safe drinking water."

But many environmental advocates said they were pleased to see the federal government weigh in with a low limit for these six PFAS chemicals.

"The EPA has now clearly stated that the two best known PFAS are harmful to human health, which environmental organizations have been saying for years," said Massachusetts Sierra Club Toxics Lead Clint Richmond in a statement.

There will now be a period for public comment on the draft regulations. EPA Administrator Regan said Tuesday that he expects the regulations to be finalized this year. Once the final rule is released, there is often a period of several years for utilities to comply with the new regulations.

This article was originally published on March 14, 2023.


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Barbara Moran Correspondent, Climate and Environment
Barbara Moran is a correspondent on WBUR’s environmental team.


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Gabrielle Emanuel Senior Health and Science Reporter
Gabrielle Emanuel was a senior health and science reporter for WBUR.



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