The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday took its first, and long-awaited, step toward regulating the presence of two toxic PFAS chemicals in drinking water, amid growing evidence that the chemicals and others in their family are a threat to public health.
The northern New Jersey suburbs of New York City showed some of the highest levels of PFAS contamination in a national study of tap water in 44 locations nationwide, according to a report last year by Environmental Working Group, a leading national advocate for PFAS regulation.
The EPA proposed to set enforceable health standards for PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate), two of the most common of the chemicals, that were once used in consumer products including Teflon, and which have been linked with some cancers, immune system impairments, developmental problems in children, and other illnesses.
The step, called a regulatory determination, allows the agency to begin a process that may eventually establish enforceable health limits that would require water utilities to monitor and treat for the chemicals, whose formal name is Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl substances — to ensure compliance.
“The agency is proposing to regulate two contaminants, PFOS and PFOA,” EPA said in a statement. “Aggressively addressing PFAS is an ongoing and high priority effort for EPA.”
The EPA’s move is the latest result of its PFAS Action Plan, a wide-ranging document that it published in February 2019, saying it would decide by the end of last year whether to begin regulating PFOA and PFOS.
For PFOA and PFOS, the agency currently sets only a health advisory level in drinking water of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for the two chemicals, individually or combined, as the level below which human health would not be hurt. But many advocates — and the health authorities of some states including New Jersey — say that level is far too high to protect public health.
Far stricter standards in cards for NJ
New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection is considering the final adoption of health limits on the two chemicals that are far stricter than the EPA’s advisory level. The state’s Drinking Water Quality Institute, a scientific panel, recommended maximum contaminant levels of 14 ppt for PFOA and 13 ppt for PFOS in 2017 and 2018, respectively. The DEP has yet to formally adopt the recommendations but is expected to do so by April 1.
New Jersey, a national leader in state regulation of the chemicals, has some of the highest rates of PFAS contamination in the United States because of its industrial history, and until recently, its lack of regulation.
Tracy Carluccio, a long-time advocate for PFAS regulation in New Jersey and neighboring states, said the EPA’s move recognized the need to regulate the chemicals, and gives the public a chance to be heard but represents only a “baby step” toward eventual regulation.
“It’s intolerable that after decades of foot-dragging, EPA is still bogged down in process. This is why states are surging ahead to regulate PFAS themselves, to make up for lack of timely and energetic federal leadership,” said Carluccio, deputy director of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network.
Environmental Working Group said the EPA’s move was in part prompted by the PFAS Action Act, a bill that would require the EPA to regulate PFAS chemicals, which has been passed by the House but which was threatened with a veto by President Trump if it reaches his desk.
Public concern over PFAS has recently been fueled by “Dark Waters,” a movie that tells the story of Robert Bilott, an Ohio attorney who obtained multimillion-dollar settlements for people whose health was affected by the discharge of PFAS-laden wastewater from a DuPont plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
Federal regulation could take years
Although the EPA’s move may blunt criticism that it has neglected a widespread threat to public health, EWG warned that the beginning of the regulatory process doesn’t necessarily mean the chemicals will be regulated soon, or ever.
“EPA has wasted decades deciding whether to regulate PFAS, and they could take many more years before a drinking water standard is finalized,” said EWG Legislative Attorney Melanie Benesh. “But today’s decision shows that an avalanche of public pressure and overwhelming science is finally forcing EPA to act.”
Benesh said the EPA’s announcement should not deter states from setting their own enforceable standards because it could still be years before federal regulations are finalized.
In other actions on PFAS, the agency also released an updated list of 172 PFAS chemicals that are subject to reporting under the federal Toxics Release Inventory. It began the process of listing PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the federal CERCLA law, and proposed that some PFAS chemicals can’t be made or imported into the United States without review under a federal toxics law.