Read the full article by Brittany Trang (Stat)
“By the end of this year, the Environmental Protection Agency has promised to propose new national drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most studied pollutants among the thousands of compounds known as PFAS, or, more colloquially, ‘forever chemicals.’
PFAS are man-made chemicals associated with nonstick pans and firefighting foams, but they are also used in things like cosmetics, paper straws and takeout containers, and waterproof fabrics. The same properties that make them useful for these applications also make them incredibly resistant to degradation, which means they pile up in the environment and in people’s bodies, vastly increasing the risk of cancers, birth defects, decreased immunity, and many more health problems.
The health threats are not just in the drinking water of people who live near chemical plants or military bases, where PFAS-containing firefighting foams are used. A 2022 analysis of 114 waterways across the country by the Waterkeeper Alliance found that 83% of waterways contained PFAS, in some cases at concentrations thousands of times higher than the EPA’s drinking water guidelines. And a 2007 study showed that over 98% of Americans had detectable levels of PFAS in their blood, regardless of demographics.
Ultimately, setting a standard for two of the thousands of PFAS compounds is a win for public health. But whatever rule the EPA proposes will be contentious — either too high to convince environmentalists that it sufficiently protects human health, or so low that water treatment plants, which will be on the hook for implementing the rule, will protest the expense of doing so.
Many water regulation and treatment experts argue that the PFAS pollution problem should have been taken care of a long time ago. The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 was intended to regulate chemicals that posed a threat to human health. Forever chemicals, however, were not among them. The reason? The companies that originally made PFAS — the acronym stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — were supposed to report to the EPA that according to their own internal research, the chemicals had horrible health effects. But the companies didn’t report their findings — for decades.
The PFAS problem then fell through the safety nets of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Because no one knew how bad these toxins were until they were already everywhere, both laws couldn’t — and still can’t — regulate how much PFAS is released into rivers, lakes, and the atmosphere.
Now it’s down to the Safe Drinking Water Act and water treatment plants to keep PFAS out of Americans’ tap water. Almost any regulation the EPA proposes would require water utilities to implement expensive new treatments, methods that one expert jokingly referred to as ‘space-age technology.’
Environmental advocates want the EPA to set limits on PFOA and PFOS that are as low and as protective of health as possible. Water treatment operators say they also want to protect health, but they don’t want the implementation of this rule to drain their budgets. What they both agree on is that polluters should pay for the expensive mess they have created.” …