Water suppliers across the nation could be required to sample for manmade “forever chemicals” in an attempt to gauge just how prevalent the contaminants are in drinking supplies.
Matthew Small, chairman of EPAs Regional Science Council for the Pacific Southwest, said the agency was considering adding per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, to its fifth nationwide sampling program, which would require testing to begin in 2023.
Every five years the Environmental Protection Agency can order large water suppliers and a sampling of smaller districts to test for up 30 chemicals that aren’t currently regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act.
A 2013-2015 sampling ordered by the Unregulated Contaminant Monitor Rule (UCMR) tested for six PFAS.
Additional PFAS testing could be ordered for the 2023 sampling round, Small said during a seminar in Sacramento Dec. 4 hosted by the State Water Resources Control Board.
Just how many PFAS and which ones to include is still under discussion, though it unusual for contaminants to be sampled for more than one round. “If I had to guess I think we’re going to sample for more compounds than previously,” he said.
Federal authorities are limited in how many chemicals they can order for sampling, said Susan Glassmeyer, a research chemist in EPAs National Exposure Research Laboratory.
“Looking for PFAS will come at the expense of looking for something else,” she said.
Snapshot Into Emerging Contaminants
PFAS are unregulated contaminants and several states have begun to set drinking water or action level limits in the absence of federal action.
UCMR is often used to provide a snapshot into emerging contaminants and gives the EPA data to inform future decisions, which could lead to drinking water regulations. EPA is expected to have a proposal in 2020 for what contaminants it will order for the 2023 round of sampling, known as UCMR5.
The substances don’t break down easily in water and can accumulate in the body. They are used in firefighting foam, nonstick products, carpeting, food packing, and other consumer products.
Water supplies, dairy cows, and food products have tested positive for PFAS exposure. The substances are part of a family of thousands of chemicals—the Food and Drug Administration says there are nearly 5,000 types of PFAS—that pose different health risks, including developmental issues in children, hormonal problems, and certain cancers.
Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund asked the EPA in July to add PFAS to the UCMR5 testing, saying the original sampling provided invaluable details but new information on health risks, better testing methods, and widespread detections require another look.
“We have widespread concern among residents near contaminated sites, among policymakers, and, indeed, upon the water drinkers whose confidence is important to all of us,” Clean Water National Campaigns Director Lynn Thorp wrote.
EPA had said they would decide by the end of the year whether to set drinking water rule for two PFAS—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).
The agency sent its decision to the White House Dec. 3 but the review will likely take months, meaning EPA would miss its end-of-year target.