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National PFAS Standards Are Needed to Protect Our Drinking Water

July 15, 2021, 8:01 AM

At a recent Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, federal lawmakers, state officials, and advocates called for federal action to reduce the public’s exposure to members of the family of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAS) considered to present a health risk.

Perhaps the most effective way to accomplish this goal is for the Environmental Protection Agency to establish national drinking water standards for specific PFAS that meet key criteria under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents companies engaged in the business of chemistry, supports the establishment of standards for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) under the federal SDWA—in accordance with the EPA’s recent announcement.

National Standards Can Eliminate Confusion

The good news is that, over a decade ago, manufacture of PFOA and PFOS was voluntarily eliminated in the U.S. As a result, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported from sampling that human exposure levels of these substances have dropped substantially. Moreover, a national survey of drinking water conducted by the EPA from 2013-2015 indicated that less than 2% of public drinking water supplies in the U.S. had detectable levels of those chemicals.

Still, more can be done, and development of national standards for these specific PFAS should give Americans greater confidence in the safety of the water they drink and help to eliminate some of the confusion caused by the patchwork of state actions that have been announced in recent months.

The SDWA standards, referred to as “maximum contaminant levels,” or MCLs, are the maximum permissible level of a substance in drinking water that can be delivered to any user of a public water system. In developing MCLs, EPA considers the potential health effects of a substance, the extent of exposure to the substance in drinking water, and the technology available to remove the substance.

Lifetime Health Advisories (LHAs) as Guidance

Although development of MCLs for PFOA and PFOS will take some time, the EPA currently has lifetime health advisories (LHAs) of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS. One part per trillion is about the same as a single drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

While these values are higher than those established by some states, they are quite a bit lower than those developed by Health Canada, who recently identified limits of 200ppt for PFOA and 600ppt for PFOS. These LHAs can serve as guidance to states and communities while the federal drinking water standards are developed. The LHAs can also be a more effective alternative to state-based initiatives.

A patchwork of state-based rules will likely be inconsistent from one another, may not reflect the best available science, and therefore could potentially confuse the public and subsequently undermine the public’s trust in the safety of their water.

While some have suggested that SDWA standards can be applied to the entire class, such a one-size-fits-all, broad-brush approach to PFAS regulation is fundamentally unscientific and unwarranted.

Should ongoing research at the EPA identify concerns about other PFAS, or groups of PFAS, ACC would support the development of appropriate regulations to reduce exposure to these substances. We also applaud Senate lawmakers for their continued oversight on EPA activities related to PFAS chemistries.

Today’s PFAS are a diverse universe of chemistries that makes possible the products that power our lives—the semiconductors, cellphones, tablets and telecommunications we use every day to connect with our friends and family; the aircraft that power the U.S. military; alternative energy sources critical to sustainability goals; and medical devices that help keep us healthy.

Furthermore, in the U.S., there is a regulatory process explicitly established for new PFAS chemistries under which new PFAS substances are subject to testing requirements and controls to allow them entry into the market.

ACC will continue to work on strong, science-based regulations that are protective of the public health and our environment while continuing to provide consumers with the important products they rely on. Americans need to know their drinking water is safe; a patchwork of rules from state to state is not the way to accomplish that. Let’s follow the science and act accordingly.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs,Inc. or its owners.

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Steve Risotto is a senior director for the American Chemistry Council, based in Washington, D.C. He is the lead staff involved in federal and state policy on PFOA and PFOS and other legacy per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).