EPA considers placing limits on ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water

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The Environmental Protection Agency announced this week that it’s considering drinking water limits for the entire class of PFAS compounds, which public health advocates say are categorically toxic.

The chemicals are used to make products resistant to water, stain and heat, and are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t fully break down or degrade. They’re linked to a range of serious health problems such as cancer, liver disease, kidney problems, heart disease, decreased immunity, and more.

Though the EPA announcement only marks the beginning of a years-long process, the move is significant because the agency doesn’t place any limits on PFAS in drinking water, and states’ rules only limit fewer than 10 types of individual PFAS compounds.

About 9,000 varieties of the chemical exist, and a growing body of scientific research suggests that the entire class is toxic to humans and animals, and accumulates in the environment.

Related: How to test your drinking water – and what to do if it's contaminated

Environmental groups have argued for several years that developing rules for each individual compound is failing to keep the public safe.

“With over 1,000 PFAS chemicals approved for use in the United States, a chemical-by-chemical approach to setting drinking water limits would likely take many lifetimes,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist with Environmental Working Group.

A recent EWG analysis found drinking water supplies for more than 100 million people across demographic lines are contaminated with PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, and it’s estimated that they’re present in 97% of Americans’ blood.

PFAS all share a key trait: they’re fluorinated, which helps the chemicals resist degradation, move through the environment easily, accumulate in animals and ultimately cause disease.

Public health advocates say that trait is the basis for regulating the chemicals as a class, or outright banning them, and a drinking water limit would represent a significant step in that direction.

Developing rules for a small number of PFAS compounds is largely ineffective because industries simply replace regulated compounds with non-regulated compounds that are also fluorinated.

A timeline on when new limits could be put in place is unclear. It has taken the EPA up to five years to determine if it’s going to regulate contaminants under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and additional time on top of that to develop the limits. The EPA didn’t immediately answer specific questions about a timeline.

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