PFAs in Drinking Water
Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that are widely used in industrial and consumer products, such as non-stick cookware, firefighting foam, and waterproof clothing. These chemicals exist persistently in the environment, meaning they do not break down easily. They can accumulate in the human body over time, potentially leading to adverse health effects such as cancer, immune system disorders, and developmental problems.
The presence of PFAS in drinking water has become a major concern in recent years. Studies have shown that PFAS are more widespread in drinking water than previously thought, with some drinking water sources exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) health advisory levels.
In March 2023, the EPA proposed new limits for PFAS in drinking water, marking a significant step towards addressing the issue of forever chemicals in drinking water. In this article, we will explore the issue of PFAS in more detail, discuss the EPA’s proposed limits, and examine their potential impact on public health, the environment, and industry.
What Are PFAS?
PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals that contain carbon-fluorine bonds. These bonds are extremely strong and make PFAS resistant to heat, water, and oil. They are useful in various industrial and consumer applications, such as non-stick coatings, stain-resistant fabrics, and firefighting foam.
PFAS have been detected in the environment, including in soil, water, and air, as well as in the blood of humans and wildlife. These chemicals are persistent, meaning they do not break down easily in the environment and can remain there for a long time. This persistence has led to concerns about the potential health effects of PFAS exposure.
Health Risks Associated with Exposure to PFAS
Researchers have linked exposure to PFAS with various health risks, including cancer, immune system disorders, and developmental problems. Studies have shown that PFAS can affect the liver, thyroid gland, and pancreas and can lead to decreased fertility in men and women. The most well-known health effects associated with PFAS exposure are increased cholesterol levels and changes in the immune system.
One of the most concerning aspects of PFAS exposure is the potential for bioaccumulation. Because PFAS are persistent and do not break down easily, they can accumulate in the body over time. This means that even small amounts of exposure to PFAS can lead to long-term accumulation in the body, potentially leading’ to adverse health effects.
Current Status of PFAS in Drinking Water
In 2016, the EPA issued a health advisory for two types of PFAS, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), recommending that they not be present in drinking water at levels above 70 parts per trillion. However, this advisory was not legally enforceable and did not apply to other types of PFAS.
Since then, numerous studies have shown that PFAS are more widespread in drinking water than previously thought. In 2019, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) published a report that found PFAS in the drinking water of nearly 100 million Americans. The report also found that the levels of PFAS in some drinking water sources exceeded the EPA’s health advisory levels.
The EPA’s Proposed Limits on PFAS in Drinking Water
In March 2023, the EPA proposed new limits for PFAS in public water systems. The proposed limits cover four types of PFAS: PFOA, PFOS, perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS), and perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA). The proposed limits are based on the best available science and aim to protect public health while considering the feasibility of implementation.
Under the proposed limits, the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for PFOA and PFOS would be set at 10 parts per trillion (ppt) each, while the MCLs for PFBS and PFNA would be set at 40 ppt each. These MCLs would apply to public water systems, which serve approximately 85% of Americans. The EPA has also proposed an information collection rule for PFAS, which would require testing of all public water systems for PFAS and would help better to understand the extent of PFAS contamination in drinking water.
Potential Impacts of the Proposed Limits
If implemented, the EPA’s proposed limits could significantly impact public health, the environment, and industry. One of the main benefits of the proposed limits is that they would provide a legally enforceable standard for PFAS in drinking water. This would ensure that public water systems are taking the necessary steps to protect the health of their customers.
The proposed limits could also encourage industries to reduce their use of PFAS, which could help to reduce the amount of these chemicals that end up in the environment. For example, some states have already banned the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS, and the proposed limits by the EPA could motivate other industries to look for alternatives to PFAS.
However, there could also be potential economic impacts associated with the proposed limits. Some industries, such as those that produce and use PFAS, may face increased costs as they work to comply with the new limits. Additionally, some communities may face higher water bills as public water systems work to remove PFAS from drinking water.
Criticisms and Controversies Surrounding the Proposed Limits
The EPA’s proposed limits on PFAS in drinking water have not been without controversy. Some industry groups and politicians have criticized the proposed limits, arguing that they are too strict and could have negative economic impacts. Others have argued that the EPA has not gone far enough in regulating PFAS.
There have also been controversies surrounding the EPA’s decision-making process. Some environmental advocates have argued that the EPA has been slow to act on PFAS and that the proposed limits do not go far enough to protect public health. Additionally, there have been concerns about the role of politics in regulating PFAS in drinking water.
The Future of PFAS in Drinking Water
The EPA’s proposed limits on PFAS in drinking water are an important step towards addressing the issue of forever chemicals in our water supply. However, we still have much work to do to fully understand the health risks associated with PFAS exposure and to develop effective strategies for reducing PFAS contamination.
We need further research on the health effects of other types of PFAS that are not covered by the proposed limits. Additionally, we need more research to understand the effectiveness of treatment methods for removing PFAS from drinking water.
Finally, we need to carry out ongoing monitoring and testing for PFAS in drinking water to ensure that public water systems comply with the proposed limits and protect the health of our communities.
Addressing the issue of PFAS in drinking water will require a multi-faceted approach that involves government, industry, and individuals working together towards a common goal. The EPA’s proposed limits on PFAS in drinking water represent an important step towards ensuring the safety and health of our communities. However, there is still much work that needs to be done to achieve this goal.
As individuals, we can take steps to reduce our exposure to PFAS, including avoiding products that contain PFAS, such as non-stick cookware and waterproof clothing, and using water filters that are certified to remove PFAS. Additionally, we can advocate for stronger regulations and continued research into the health effects of PFAS exposure.
Ultimately, it is important that we continue to prioritize the issue of PFAS in drinking water and work towards developing effective solutions. This includes not only regulatory action but also the development of safer alternatives to PFAS and the responsible management of PFAS-containing waste.
In conclusion, the EPA’s proposed limits on PFAS in drinking water are an important step towards addressing the issue of forever chemicals in our water supply. Although there may be potential economic impacts associated with the proposed limits, the benefits of protecting public health and the environment outweigh these costs significantly. To ensure that public water systems comply with the proposed limits and protect the health of our communities, we need to continue with research, monitoring, and advocacy.
- United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2023, March 15). EPA Takes Bold Action to Address PFAS in Drinking Water. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/system/files/documents/2023-03/Pre-Publication%20Federal%20Register%20Notice_PFAS%20NPDWR_NPRM_Final_3.13.23.pdf
- United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2016, May 19). Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFOA and PFOS. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/drinking-water-health-advisories-pfoa-and-pfos
- Environmental Working Group. (2019, May 22). EWG Tap Water Database: PFAS Chemicals in Drinking Water. Retrieved from https://www.ewg.org/news-insights/news-release/2023/03/epa-proposes-bold-new-limits-tackling-forever-chemicals-drinking