EPA releases new advisories for PFAS levels in drinking water

Essentially no safe levels of toxic ‘forever chemicals’ found in many US water systems.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released new health advisories for toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).1 Also called ‘forever chemicals,’ PFAS are resistant to disintegration and present in the blood of humans and animals, and found in water, air, fish, and soil across the globe.2

The new advisories cut the safe level of the chemical Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) more than 17,000 times what the EPA previously deemed acceptable for public health, to now just 4 parts per quadrillion. They also reduced safe levels of perfluorooctyl sulfonate (PFOS)—another PFAS chemical—by a factor of 3,500.3

The advisories essentially declare any detectable amounts of PFOA and PFOS unsafe for consumption. PFAS exposure—even in miniscule amounts—has been linked to serious and lifelong consequences. They cross the placenta the same way vitamins and minerals do and can impact thyroid hormone levels and hinder in-utero growth and brain development.4 Prenatal and after-delivery exposure may also lead to low birth weight, childhood obesity, and heightened risk of infection later in life. Based on current understanding, the benefits of breastfeeding appear to outweigh the risks for infants exposed to PFAS in breast milk.2

The Environmental Working Group (EWG)—an American nonprofit group dedicated to advocacy and research on agricultural subsidies, toxic chemicals, drinking water pollutants, and corporate accountability—have tracked PFOA, PFOS, and other PFAS chemicals in drinking water. They are not yet officially regulated, so water systems are not required to test for them.

Senior vice president with EWG, Scott Faber, said that at least 1,943 public water suppliers across the country have been found to contain some amount of PFOS and PFOA.4

“This will set off alarm bells for consumers, for regulators, and for manufacturers, who thought the previous [advisories] were safe,” Faber said. “I can't find the words to explain what kind of a moment this is…The number of people drinking what are, according to these new numbers, unsafe levels of PFAS, is going to grow astronomically.”

The EPA plans to release a formal drinking water regulation for PFOS, PFOA, and potentially other chemicals, in the fall of 2022. It is also inviting states and territories to apply for $1 billion—the first of $5 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law grant funding—to address PFAS and other drinking water contaminants, primarily in small or disadvantaged communities.3

References

1. EPA Announces New Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFAS Chemicals, $1 Billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Funding to Strengthen Health Protections | US EPA. US EPA. Published June 15, 2022. Accessed June 23, 2022. https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/epa-announces-new-drinking-water-health-advisories-pfas-chemicals-1-billion-bipartisan

2. PFAS Explained | US EPA. US EPA. Published March 30, 2016. Accessed June 23, 2022. https://www.epa.gov/pfas/pfas-explained

3. Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) | US EPA. US EPA. Published March 30, 2016. Accessed June 23, 2022. https://www.epa.gov/pfas

4. Parkersburg, West Virginia. The PFAS Project Lab. Published April 21, 2017. Accessed June 23, 2022. https://pfasproject.com/parkersburg-west-virginia/

5. Our Current Understanding of the Human Health and Environmental Risks of PFAS | US EPA. US EPA. Published October 14, 2021. Accessed June 23, 2022. https://www.epa.gov/pfas/our-current-understanding-human-health-and-environmental-risks-pfas

6. PFAS Strategic Roadmap: EPA’s Commitments to Action 2021-2024 | US EPA. US EPA. Published October 14, 2021. Accessed June 23, 2022. https://www.epa.gov/pfas/pfas-strategic-roadmap-epas-commitments-action-2021-2024