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EPA unveils first federal limits on 'forever chemicals' in drinking water

EPA unveils first federal limits on 'forever chemicals' in drinking water

Only a handful of states have ever regulated the substances known for years to be toxic

  • Water from the Santa Cruz River Heritage Project, which recharges water by sending it down the watercourse near Downtown Tucson, flows in the river in 2019.
    Dylan Simard/Cronkite NewsWater from the Santa Cruz River Heritage Project, which recharges water by sending it down the watercourse near Downtown Tucson, flows in the river in 2019.

U.S. drinking water standards will for the first time include limits on the presence of cancer-causing substances known as PFAS or forever chemicals because of their inability to degrade without costly intervention.

Once finalized, the regulations announced Tuesday by the White House will be overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants," EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

Short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS chemicals have become ubiquitous — found not only in drinking water but the air and food supplies — since their creation in the 1940s for goods like nonstick pans, food packaging and firefighting foam. While mostly phased out in the U.S., some manufacturers do still use the chemicals or new variations of them. In areas where PFAS pollution tends to be concentrated — disadvantaged urban communities, in or near military bases, or surrounding rural factories — corrective measures have been hard fought.

Led by Massachusetts and New Hampshire, only a handful of states have their own regulations for PFAS chemicals in drinking water.

The EPA's proposal would go farther than any of these, setting strict limits of 4 parts per trillion, the lowest level that can be reliably measured, for two common types of PFAS compounds called PFOA and PFOS. The four other types of PFAS would be regulated as a combined amount.

Opposition to the measure is already forming meanwhile in industry circles.

The American Chemistry Council, a trade group for large chemical companies, slammed EPA’s “misguided approach” and chafed at the "billions of dollars in compliance costs" that it expects.

Public water systems are made responsible under the new regulations for monitoring the chemicals, notifying customers and taking immediate action when PFAS contamination levels exceed the proposed standards.

Sri Vedachalam, director of water equity and climate resilience at Environmental Consulting & Technology Inc., pointed to the expense that local utilities will bear for new equipment installation.

“This is a problem that has been handed over to utilities through no fault of their own,” Vedachalam told the Associated Press.

At the same time, he noted, these communities have competing demands on their budget, the removal of poisonous lead pipes chief among them.

Environmental groups, lawmakers and even the actor Mark Ruffalo were quick meanwhile to applaud the EPA's efforts.

“My message to polluters is simple: after poisoning your workers and neighbors for decades, it is time to make our public health, not your profits, our top priority,” Ruffalo said. “My message to communities devastated by PFAS pollution is equally simple: help is finally on the way.”

Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, which focuses on PFAS pollution off the coast of North Carolina, called access to clean drinking water "a basic human right."

"We applaud the Biden EPA for having the courage to do what multiple administrations could not," she said.

The new regulations were announced less than a week after President Joe Biden released his 2024 budget, which is set to include an extra $370 million in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Assistance to Firefighters Program. The money is dedicated to support firefighters exposed to PFAS through cancer screenings, fitness activities and other wellness initiatives.

“These dollars will be crucial in providing our municipalities with the resources they will need to comply with these new regulations so that together we can prioritize clean water for our communities,” Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire said in a statement. “As this process moves forward and with the anticipation of the rule being finalized, I urge the Biden administration to move swiftly and ensure timely allocation of funds from the infrastructure bill to assist public water operators as they begin work to meet these new enforceable drinking water levels.”

In his first year in office, Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal secured $9 billion over five years for communities to reduce PFAS and other contamination levels in drinking water.

The EPA is holding informational webinars about the proposed regulations on March 16 and March 29. Registration is required and can be found at

Members of the public can also register by April 28 for an eight-hour virtual public hearing that the EPA will hold May 4. 

Alternatively, public comments can be provided once the proposal is published in the Federal Register under Docket ID: EPA-HQ-OW-2022-0114. The EPA has instructions on its website for submitting comments to EPA dockets.

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