© 2024 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

EPA proposes enforceable limits on toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water

Courtesy of CDC.gov
The EPA's proposal would require public water systems to monitor for six PFAS chemicals. It also puts enforceable limits in place, including 4 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, which is the highest level of these contaminants that would be allowed in drinking water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has for the first time proposed limits for six “forever chemicals” in drinking water, a move by the agency to protect public health from harmful chemicals that have been linked to a range of health impacts from cancer to decreased fertility.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are chemicals that have been used in a range of products such as firefighting foams, nonstick cookware and even raincoats. There are thousands of these chemicals, found not just in household items, but in the air, water and soil.

Under the EPA’s proposal, water utilities would be required to test for six PFAS compounds, including PFOA and PFOS. The EPA is proposing 4 parts per trillion as the highest level of PFOA and PFOS that would be allowed in drinking water, calling 4 parts per trillion the lowest level of PFAS that can be “reliably measured." The EPA is also proposing limits on mixtures of PFNA, PFHXs, PFBS and GenX Chemicals, using something called a “hazard index” to determine the combined health risk of these chemicals. If a water utility detects the six PFAS above the proposed standards, the public water system would be required to remove those chemicals from its drinking water supply or switch to another water source that doesn’t exceed the EPA’s standard.

“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,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a statement.

Environmental groups, including the Environmental Working Group and the Natural Resources Defense Council, celebrated the EPA’s announcement. Scott Faber, the senior vice president for government affairs at EWG, called it “historic progress.”

“More than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their tap water,” said Faber in a statement, pointing to a 2020 study. “Americans have been drinking contaminated water for decades. This proposal is a critical step toward getting these toxic poisons out of our water.”

The proposed limits are much more stringent than measures the EPA took several years ago. In 2016, the EPA established health advisory levels of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water, levels that were guidelines, not an enforceable standard.

David Cwiertny, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and the director for the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination at the University of Iowa, called the proposed limits a “fairly aggressive” nationwide standard.

“What the EPA is signaling with this new proposed [maximum contaminant level] is that more recent data has shown that these chemicals are more problematic than we previously realized,” Cwiertny said.

Some states, including Colorado, New Hampshire and Vermont, had previously adopted their own standards for PFAS. Iowa does not have its own enforceable standard, so the Iowa Department of Natural Resources can’t require water systems with high levels of the chemicals to treat PFAS until the EPA’s proposed standards go into effect.

Corey McCoid, the DNR’s PFAS coordinator and water supply operations supervisor, said Iowa did not establish its own PFAS regulations as other states have done because it does not have the resources to do so.

“We simply are not built as an agency to be able to create our own standards,” McCoid said. “We rely on EPA to set the standards and then we implement those standards once they propose them, and make the rules effective.”

The DNR, however, has been testing drinking water around the state for PFAS, which began in October 2021 to get a picture of what the problem looks like across the state.

The agency wrapped up its latest round of testing this past December. McCoid said the DNR has sampled 126 water supplies that it considered to be closer to potential sources of PFAS and more susceptible to contamination. Six water supplies in Iowa have PFAS levels higher than the EPA’s proposed limit.

The DNR has already been doing some of the things highlighted in the EPA’s proposal, McCoid said, like requiring water supply systems to notify the public about what’s in their drinking water if their levels of PFAS are high.

“One of the big challenges to this point is nobody knew what to treat for or at what level,” McCoid said. “So you can’t design a new treatment plant if that’s what’s needed until you know what the final number is going to be.”

The EPA is taking public comment on the proposed nationwide rules and it hopes to finalize the regulation by the end of the year. UI’s David Cwiertny said once the new levels are finalized, the “practical reality” is water systems across the country will have to figure out how to meet that standard.

“I think we’ll have to find a way to make it achievable,” Cwiertny said. “I think we can’t expect that small rural systems will be able to do this on their own.”

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.