The US might finally regulate toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water

The Biden administration has proposed a limit for PFAS pollution, which threatens human health and the environment.
The proposal goes after six chemicals—specifically targeting PFOA and PFOS at 4 parts per trillion. Unsplash

A class of compounds known as PFAS, or so-called forever chemicals, have made the headlines many times in the past few years—they are difficult to remove or break down, leading to pervasiveness in nature and toxic health implications for our own bodies. In fact, last year the EPA found that the chemicals cause harm at even extremely low levels, noting that any exposure could be unsafe.

And while the European Union and other governments have made steps to reduce their presence, the US has been slower to regulate them until quite recently. 

On Tuesday, the Biden administration debuted a new action to protect communities against this pollution, notably by making the nation’s first drinking water standard for PFAS, technically known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. This proposal would be one of the first new standards to update the Safe Drinking Water Act since 1996, and is even more ambitious than EPA suggested limits proposed in 2016. 

[Related: PFAS are toxic and they’re everywhere. Here’s how to stay away from them.]

“I am thrilled to announce that EPA is taking yet another bold step to protect public health,” EPA administrator Michael Regan said at a news conference on Tuesday. “Folks, this is a tremendous step forward in the right direction. We anticipate that when fully implemented, this rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS related illnesses.”

The proposal goes after six chemicals—specifically targeting PFOA and PFOS at 4 parts per trillion. Additionally, there would be limits set on the total mixed amount of four other similar chemicals, known as PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX. If finalized, these regulations would require public water systems to monitor these compounds and notify the public if limits are exceeded. 

“Regulating these six highly toxic PFAS chemicals in drinking water is a historic start to protecting our families and communities,” Anna Reade, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, told the New York Times. “We cannot safeguard public health until we get off this toxic treadmill of regulating one PFAS at a time when thousands of other PFAS remain unregulated.”

Unsurprisingly, not everyone is on board. According to the New York Times, members of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies are concerned about high expense of compliance, estimating it would cost $43 million for just one utility in Cape Fear, North Carolina, to filter out PFAS. On the other hand, the American Chemistry Council noted to the Times that two of the chemicals mentioned in the new proposal had already been phased out of production by some manufacturers eight years ago. 

[Related: The right kind of filter can keep microplastics out of drinking water.]

A few experts also pointed out that cleaning up water is only so effective—to preserve human and environmental health, corporations must stop manufacturing these harmful chemicals altogether. While some companies have made promises to stop producing PFAS, they are hardly universal. “You have to turn it off at the source,” Carol Kwiatkowski of the Green Science Policy Institute, an environmental advocacy organization, told the BBC. “It doesn’t make any sense to keep cleaning them out of the water if we keep putting them back in.”

The Biden administration has been laying the groundwork for such a move for over a year. In 2021, Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed, which included $10 billion of funding to address emerging contaminants including PFAS. As of February 2023, $2 billion of that will go towards addressing pollutants in drinking water across the country.