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Biden Introduces First National Limits on “Forever Chemicals” in Drinking Water

A water fountain found in an art museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Source: Dori/wikimedia

The Biden Administration is directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to introduce new drinking water standards meant to curtail Americans’ exposure to so-called “forever chemicals” or PFAS.

These new drinking water standards will be the first national standards to regulate different types of Per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) that recent evidence suggests can cause a myriad of health problems when consumed over time.

On a call with reporters, EPA administrator Michael Regan went over the motivations for these new rules, which would set enforceable limits on PFAS for utilities that serve America’s tap water.

“There’s no doubt that these chemicals have been important for certain industries and consumer uses, but there’s also no doubt that many of these chemicals can be harmful to our health and our environment,” Regan said.

PFAS are a class of manmade chemicals that have both consumer and industrial uses. They have garnered the nickname “forever chemicals” because of their resistance to breaking down naturally in the environment.

According to Anna Reade, a lead scientist on PFAS for the National Resources Defense Council, PFAS made in the 1940s “are still in our environment today. The levels of these chemicals keep building up in our water and our food and our air.”

PFAS are used by people every day in things like nonstick cookware, makeup, raincoats, and cleaning products. They are good at repelling water, preventing stains, and keeping food from sticking to pans. As these products are used, tiny invisible microscopic particles detach, infecting water, food, and the environment.

In a statement announcing the decision, the EPA outlined a few of the finalized drinking standards around PFAS.

“EPA is setting enforceable Maximum Contaminant Levels at 4.0 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, individually. This standard will reduce exposure from these PFAS in our drinking water to the lowest levels that are feasible for effective implementation,” the statement said.

The EPA has also set a non-enforceable health goal for specific PFAS based on scientific research.

“For PFOA and PFOS, EPA is setting a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal, a non-enforceable health-based goal, at zero. This reflects the latest science showing that there is no level of exposure to these contaminants without risk of health impacts, including certain cancers,” said the EPA.

Health and environmental advocates opposed to the current landscape of PFAS praised the decision.

“This is huge, it’s monumental, it’s historic,” said advocate Emily Donovan from North Carolina. “Today’s announcement’s not going to erase the past, but it’s definitely going to give us a more fair and just future.”

Donovan’s city of Wilmington had recently experienced localized contamination of PFAS in their drinking water which came from a nearby Chemours plant. It was discovered that the plant had been discharging these chemicals for years into the Cape Fear River which supplied Donovan’s community with drinking water.

Both Republicans and Democrats, including Donald Trump and Joe Biden, have voiced support for regulating these chemicals in the past.

However, industry groups are wary of the costs and feasibility of such regulation standards. The American Water Works Association said that just meeting the EPA’s PFOA and PFOS limits alone, two specific types of PFAS, would cost $3 billion per year.


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