Bloomberg Law
Oct. 19, 2022, 9:30 AM

Global PFAS Guidance Fuels Debate as EPA Tap Water Limits Loom

Pat Rizzuto
Pat Rizzuto

The World Health Organization’s views on the risks of PFAS are fanning disputes about a draft EPA rule the White House is reviewing to set enforceable limits on two “forever chemicals” in drinking water.

The global health agency’s chemicals guidance seldom features in US policy debates, attorneys said. But they expect to bring this document to the White House’s attention as it reviews the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed National Primary Drinking Water Regulation rule (RIN: 2040-AG18) for both chemicals.

WHO’s draft guidance would allow vastly more perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) in drinking water than the EPA has recommended.

The global health agency’s draft guidance recommends a limit of 100 parts per trillion (ppt) of either PFOA or PFOS in drinking water. It also recommends a total cap of 500 ppt for combinations of up to 30 PFAS. The guidance is open for comment through Nov. 11.

Those limits compare to the interim health advisory of 0.004 ppt for PFOA and 0.02 ppt for PFOS that the EPA issued in June. They’re also higher than the EPA’s 2016 recommendation of 70 ppt for PFOA or PFOS individually or in combination.

‘Sow Seeds of Doubt’

The difference in the WHO guidance and the interim EPA advisory has sparked concern from advocates of stricter limits and interest from the regulated community, which thinks WHO flagged important uncertainties.

“The chemical industry will use WHO’s guidance to sow seeds of doubt” and undermine the EPA’s science, said Melanie Benesh, an attorney and vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.

Industry will latch onto this “one aberration” and use it to undermine the EPA’s science, because the thousands of ways PFAS are used make them highly profitable, she said.

But WHO isn’t alone in pointing to the uncertain science about PFAS, said Allyson Cunningham, a partner with Lathrop GPM LLP’s environmental and tort practice group. WHO’s interpretation of the science of PFAS’ health effects is consistent with that voiced in a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report earlier this year, she said.

The EPA said by email that it worked with the global health office as WHO developed its guidance, and is reviewing that guidance before commenting.

PFOA and PFOS are the most well-studied forms of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

Most countries are working to phase out the two chemicals, which linger for decades in the environment, build up in the food chain, and are suspected of increasing the risk of diseases including cancers and weakened immune systems.

WHO and National Academies

Groups including the American Chemistry Council, PFAS Regulatory Coalition, and Environmental Working Group said they’re likely to seek a meeting with the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is reviewing the proposal that the EPA aims to release by the end of this year.

The EPA’s rule would propose enforceable Maximum Contaminant Limits for PFOA and PFOS, identify water treatment technologies it thinks could meet those limits, and establish health-based goals for future technologies to address.

The agency’s proposed enforceable limits aren’t publicly known.

But, the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, plans to seek a meeting with OMB and bring up “the significant scientific shortcomings” of the EPA’s PFAS evaluation approach compared to those from WHO and Health Canada, the council said by email.

Health Canada has recommended limits of 200 ppt for PFOA and 600 ppt for PFOS.

The PFAS Regulatory Coalition—which represents municipal entities, agricultural parties, trade associations, and companies that use or are affected by, but don’t make, PFAS—also is likely to ask to meet with OMB and discuss WHO’s guidance, said Jeffrey Longsworth, a partner with Barnes & Thornburg LLP, who advises the coalition.

The regulatory limits the EPA has proposed are expected to be high enough that laboratory methods can detect them, which isn’t true for its interim health advisories, which aren’t detectable, said Cunningham.

Still, the “huge discrepancy” in the various recommendations deserve the attention of the regulatory community and EPA, she said.

The US agency, for example, pointed to concerns about cancer and heart problems in its interim advisories. Yet the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine said the evidence for those and some other health effects attributed to PFAS are weak, said Cunningham in an interview and blog.

EPA’s conclusions align with concerns states and international health agencies have raised as they’ve set regulatory or recommended limits, said Benesh of EWG, who’s organization detailed numerous flaws it finds in WHO’s conclusions.

EWG expects to meet with OMB and strongly support the EPA’s science, she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Renee Schoof at

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