The Environmental Protection Agency released long-awaited proposed standards for cancer-causing “forever chemicals” in drinking water on Tuesday. Once finalized, the standards will force states to begin the arduous and expensive process of cleaning their water supplies of some of the class of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. This marks the first time the EPA has proposed enforceable drinking water limits for PFAS, which are commonly known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down over time and can remain in the environment for years on end. 

The proposed limits would cap two common types of PFAS contamination — the chemicals PFOA and PFOS — in drinking water at just 4 parts per trillion. That’s a significant reduction from the level the EPA suggested was safe as recently as 2016, when the agency put out a health advisory that suggested 70 parts per trillion as a maximum level for those types of PFAS in drinking water. This week’s announcement signals that federal regulators’ understanding of the health impacts of exposure to these chemicals is rapidly evolving and that the EPA now appears to believe that virtually no quantity of the chemicals is safe for human consumption. 

There are more than 12,000 chemicals under the PFAS umbrella, some used more widely than others. In total, the rule would apply to six commonly used types: PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, PFBS, PFHxS, and GenX. Besides limiting PFOA and PFOS to 4 parts per trillion, the remaining four types of chemicals would be restricted based on their combined effects. The agency is now soliciting feedback from the public on the proposed rule and aims to finalize it by the end of the year.  

In recent years, as the EPA mulled over how strict to make its PFAS standard, some states — including Alaska, Massachusetts, and Vermont — chose to move forward without the agency and propose or set their own limits on forever chemicals. The federal rule would supersede any state limits that clock in above 4 parts per trillion. 

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PFAS have been used in firefighting foam, rain jackets, pizza boxes, popcorn bags, nonstick pans, couches, and other industrial and consumer products for decades. While their water-resistant properties are convenient, the chemicals have been linked to adverse health effects in humans, such as compromised immune systems, thyroid disorders, and kidney and testicular cancers, among other issues. 

Chemical companies in the United States, which knew in the 1970s that PFAS were building up in Americans’ bloodstreams and that the chemicals could have serious health consequences in humans, manufactured PFAS for decades without alerting the public to the potential consequences. The cost of ridding the nation’s water supplies of PFAS could be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Water utilities will have to spend big on new technologies that are sensitive enough to filter out the tiny chemicals. 

A number of affected utilities are taking the chemical company 3M, a major manufacturer of PFAS, to court this summer in an effort to force the company to pay for the cost of cleanup. Their lawsuit alleges that 3M and other chemical companies knew about the negative health impacts of forever chemicals decades ago and chose not to tell federal regulators about it in order to continue turning a profit. 3M announced last year that it will stop manufacturing PFAS by 2025, but the company still does not publicly admit that its products have caused or could cause harm to humans. 

Advocates celebrated the EPA’s new standards on Tuesday. “It has taken far too long to get to this point, but the scientific facts and truth about the health threat posed by these man-made poisons have finally prevailed over the decades of corporate cover-ups and misinformation campaigns designed to mislead the public and delay action,” Robert Bilott, the attorney who successfully sued DuPont in 1999 for poisoning communities in West Virginia with the forever chemical PFOA, said in a statement provided to Grist. In 2018, he filed a lawsuit against PFAS manufacturers on behalf of everyone in the U.S. with forever chemicals in their blood (that is, virtually all of us). The litigation is ongoing. 

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“Today’s proposal is a necessary and long overdue step towards addressing the nation’s PFAS crisis,” Earthjustice attorney Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz said in a statement. “EPA must resist efforts to weaken this proposal, move quickly to finalize health-protective limits on these six chemicals, and address the remaining PFAS that continue to poison drinking water supplies and harm communities across the country.”

 Editor’s note: Earthjustice is an advertiser with Grist. Advertisers have no role in Grist’s editorial decisions.

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