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EPA drastically tightens PFAS advisory levels, pledges funding

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has significantly lowered its health threshold levels for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in a move that could potentially impact thousands of water systems nationwide, but has also announced some $5 billion in grant funding to help communities prepare and deal with these contaminants.

Last week’s decision involves two PFAS chemicals — perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), often noted as “forever chemicals”. PFAS are known for non-stick and stain-resistant capabilities, but are being phased out of production. Still, they include some 5,000 substances that can be used in products like food packaging, firefighting foam, cosmetics, oil and water repellent chemicals. The man-made chemicals have been linked to liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression and cancer.

The new levels for these chemicals is a dramatic drop from 70 parts per trillion (ppt) to new interim lifetime drinking water health advisories of 0.004 ppt for PFOA and 0.02 ppt for PFOS.

“People on the frontlines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long,” announced EPA Administrator Michael Regan. “That’s why EPA is taking aggressive action as part of a whole-of-government approach to prevent these chemicals from entering the environment and to help protect concerned families from this pervasive challenge,” he added.

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The PFAS levels were last adjusted in 2016.

The EPA said the new levels — which as advisories are technically not enforceable — were issued “in light of newly available science and in accordance with EPA’s responsibility to protect public health,” and that these new advisories indicate the level of drinking water contamination below which adverse health effects are not expected to occur.

The EPA also notes that based on current methods, the health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS will be below the level of both detection and quantitation. The minimum reporting level for PFOA and PFOS is currently 4 ppt.

“This means that it is possible for PFOA or PFOS to be present in drinking water at levels that exceed health advisories even if testing indicates no level of these chemicals,” the EPA states in its PFAS Q&A webpage.

The EPA has identified a series of technologies that are known to reduce PFAS concentrations. They include activated carbon, anion exchange, and high-pressure membranes.

Some of the new funding available to help communities reduce water contaminants will be for actions such as technical assistance, water quality testing, contractor training, and installation of centralized treatment technologies and systems.

In Canada, PFAS threshold levels matched the 70 ppt standard previously used by the EPA; however, Health Canada is currently preparing a state of PFAS report that will be completed within a year or two.

Last year, the Ontario City of North Bay signed a deal with the Department of National Defence that provides nearly $20 million over six years to remediate PFAS from Jack Garland Airport. The airport had been used to train firefighters and often used the chemicals in firefighting foams.

This article appears in ES&E Magazine’s August 2022 issue:

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