Bloomberg Law
March 14, 2023, 2:00 PMUpdated: March 14, 2023, 4:11 PM

US Plans First Rules on Forever Chemicals in Drinking Water (1)

Pat Rizzuto
Pat Rizzuto

The EPA on Tuesday proposed the first national limits on PFAS in drinking water in a move the agency says will protect public health from the harmful chemicals.

“Long-term exposure to certain types of PFAS has been linked to serious illnesses including cancer, liver damage, and high cholesterol,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan announcing the standards.

“When fully implemented this rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serous PFAS-related illnesses,” he said.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been used in thousands of industrial and consumer products for years because they give telecommunications cables, machinery, clothing, and cookware endurable qualities that make them useful. But those qualities are “also what makes them particularly harmful to people in the environment,” Regan said.

The proposed limits would “have consequences that will last for generations,” Regan said.

Proposed Limits

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed a 4 parts per trillion (ppt) enforceable limit on the amount of either perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) or perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) that could be in drinking water.

PFOA and PFOS are likely to cause cancer, the EPA said. That means the agency presumes that no amount of either chemical can be consumed without risk.

But 4 ppt is the lowest concentration that laboratories can reliably measure for PFOA and PFOS, the EPA said. That means that’s the limit drinking water utilities could use to demonstrate compliance with the proposed enforceable maximum contaminant levels (MCLs), the agency said.

If finalized, the 4 ppt MCLs would be lower than any binding limit states have set for either PFOA or PFOS.

The EPA also proposed a strategy to limit four additional PFAS: perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS), and hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO) dimer acid and its ammonium salt, referred to as the “GenX chemicals” due to the technology that produces them.

The agency’s strategy proposes water concentration limits for each of the four PFAS based on its estimated hazards.

Water utilities would compare the amount of each of the four PFAS in their drinking water systems with EPA’s hazard-based limits. Utilities would then use a mathematical formula to determine whether any combination of the four chemicals exceeded a different type of MCL. In this case the EPA describes the MCL as a hazard index greater than 1, meaning it estimates that amount of the chemicals is too much for people to drink.

Due to their similarity to PFOA and PFOS, the agency also is concerned about the hazards posed by other four PFAS, which are part of a group of thousands of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), some of which persist for decades, build up in people and the food chain, and can be toxic.

People `Heard and Seen’

People in Michigan, New Hampshire, and North Carolina, where PFAS contaminated drinking water, praised the measure as a good step.

“The EPA delivered what no previous administration has done by taking an immense first step in addressing our nation’s PFAS contamination in drinking water crisis,” said Laurene Allen, from New Hampshire’s Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water.

“By regulating these toxic chemicals on a federal level, the EPA has ensured that a community’s exposure and health risks will no longer be ignored. Communities such as mine who see the impacts of PFAS are grateful that our exposure has been acknowledged as harmful and our states will have the right regulatory guidance,” she said.

“We’ve been fighting for years for PFAS drinking water standards,” said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear in North Carolina. “Today is about being heard and seen. Today is about answered prayers.”

Democratic legislators including Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), House Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.), Congressional PFAS Task Force co-chair Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), and Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) were among those commending the EPA’s effort.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said she was pleased that after years of urging three administrations to propose national standards for the two best-studied and most prevalent PFAS this administration finally followed through.

But, water utilities’ perspectives need to be heard as do ratepayers, Capito said.

`More to Do’

Yet more federal effort is needed, Donovan said.

“We beg the EPA to have the courage to hold polluters like the chemical industry, NASA, Dept. of Defense, and the fire service accountable for decades of PFAS exposures,” she said. Decades-long use of specialized PFAS-containing fire fighting foams by the military, federal agencies, airports, and to a lesser extent local fire departments have saved lives, but also contaminated soil and water across the country.

“There is more work to be done,” by the EPA and other agencies, Regan said. But, “by the end of this year I plan to have this rule finalized so that we can take action as soon as possible.”

The EPA will hold webinars offering information about its proposed regulation on March 16 and 29, and it will hold a public hearing to accept comments on May 4.

To see the latest updates on state-level PFAS regulations and legislation, check out Bloomberg Law’s PFAS State Activity Tracker here.

— With assistance from Andrew Wallender

(Updates with reporting throughout.)

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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