US EPA issues final PFAS rule for drinking water after year of consultation

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PFAS Contamination of Drinking Water - Alertness about dangerous PFAS per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances presence in potable water - Concept with magnifying glass.
Over the last year, the EPA says it reviewed extensive research and science on how PFAS affects public health, while engaging with the water sector and state regulators to ensure effective implementation. The agency also considered 120,000 comments on the proposed rule from a wide variety of stakeholders. Graphic: Francesco Scatena, stock.adobe.com

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finalized its national standard for PFAS limits in drinking water, making it the newest contaminant to face protection limits in drinking water since 1996.

Following one year of consultation to determine enforceable maximum contaminant levels for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), the EPA ultimately maintained its proposal of 4 parts per trillion, or nanograms per litre, for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), the lowest concentration most laboratories can reliably detect.

However, the EPA is also setting a non-enforceable health-based goal, or maximum contaminant level goal, of zero.

For PFNA, PFHxS, and “GenX Chemicals”, the EPA is setting its maximum contaminant level at 10 parts per trillion.

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Over the last year, the EPA says it reviewed extensive research and science on how PFAS affects public health, while engaging with the water sector and state regulators to ensure effective implementation. The agency also considered 120,000 comments on the proposed rule from a wide variety of stakeholders.

The EPA says people can be exposed to PFAS through food, drinking water, or by coming into contact with certain products such as cosmetics, non-stick cookware, and firefighting foams. The group of “forever chemicals” has shown links to cancer and other health concerns.

“Our PFAS Strategic Roadmap marshals the full breadth of EPA’s authority and resources to protect people from these harmful forever chemicals,” announced EPA Administrator Michael Regan, in a statement to media. “Today, I am proud to finalize this critical piece of our Roadmap, and in doing so, save thousands of lives and help ensure our children grow up healthier.”

The EPA estimates that between about 6% and 10% of the 66,000 public drinking water systems subject to the new PFAS rule may have to take action to reduce chemicals to meet the new standards. Public water systems have three years to complete their initial monitoring for these chemicals. 

Public water systems must inform the public of the level of PFAS measured in their drinking water. Where PFAS is found at levels that exceed these standards, systems must implement solutions to reduce PFAS in their drinking water within five years, according to the new rule.

The EPA estimates the costs for public water systems to implement this regulation are approximately $1.5 billion per year. President Joe Biden’s administration has dedicated $9 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure package to fund efforts to mitigate PFAS in water systems. An additional $12 billion from the package is for general improvements to drinking water infrastructure.

Following the release of the new rule, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) released a statement to reiterate some of its previously-raised concerns.

“As noted in AWWA’s comments on the proposed rule, the association is concerned that the rule’s health and financial impacts are not accurately characterized. AWWA estimates the cost of the rule is more than three times higher than the agency’s calculations. The magnitude of these additional costs will lead to affordability challenges in many communities.”

The National Rural Water Association (NRWA) also issued a statement to reflect concerns over cost, noting that the requirements “will have disproportionate impacts on small, disadvantaged, and rural communities that lack the financial and managerial capacity to make upgrades.”

In recent weeks, a U.S. District Court in Charleston, South Carolina, finalized a settlement from 3M, one of the largest producers of PFAS products in the country. The settlement will impact some 12,000 water systems across the U.S., which claimed damages for PFAS-related testing and monitoring costs, as well as costs for designing and operating treatment systems to reduce PFAS levels. 

In its announcement, the EPA stated that the new PFAS limits are achievable using a range of available technologies and approaches, including granular activated carbon, reverse osmosis, and ion exchange systems. For example, the EPA noted that the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, serving Wilmington, North Carolina, a community heavily impacted by PFAS contamination, has effectively deployed a granular activated carbon system to remove PFAS. 

“Drinking water systems will have flexibility to determine the best solution for their community,” the EPA announced. 

EPA will host a series of webinars to provide information to the public, communities, and water utilities about the final PFAS drinking water regulation. To learn more about the webinars, please visit EPA’s PFAS drinking water regulation webpage. EPA has also published a toolkit of communications resources to help drinking water systems and community leaders educate the public about PFAS, where they come from, their health risks, how to reduce exposure, and about this rule.

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