The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set new advisory limits for four common perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances in drinking water, warning that the chemicals can pose health risks even at undetectable levels.
PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” are found in an array of consumer products, including food packaging, nonstick cookware, carpeting, and clothing. Through manufacturing and waste, these chemicals leach into the environment, affecting the drinking water of more than 200 million people.
The EPA advisory is non-binding, meaning the federal government cannot punish manufacturers that do not comply with the threshold. But state regulators can use the advisories to set legal thresholds or to serve as a guide for clean-up efforts.
“It took over two decades to get here, but the scientific facts and truth about the health threat posed by these PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ have finally prevailed over the misinformation campaigns and corporate cover-ups designed to mislead the public and delay action,” Robert Bilott, JD, an environmental lawyer and early advocate for PFAS regulation, said in a statement to Verywell.
PFAS are a class of more than 12,000 chemicals commonly used because they can resist water, heat, and grease. They are sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they can take thousands of years to degrade in the environment and may persist in humans’ bloodstreams indefinitely.
Nearly every American has been exposed to PFAS due to their prevalence in drinking water, soil, and the air. Hundreds of studies have linked the chemicals to certain cancers, reproductive problems, liver disease, decreased immunity, and other serious health outcomes.
“Even small amounts of these chemicals can have really serious effects,” Melanie Benesh, JD, a legislative attorney at the Environmental Working Group, told Verywell. “That’s something that regulators should be concerned about. It’s something that consumers should be concerned about. And it should be spurring even more action to try and address our exposures to these chemicals.”
The EPA is now offering guidance and funding to states, tribes, and territories to better monitor drinking water quality and implement treatments to reduce exposures to PFAS.
Later this year, the agency will propose enforceable limits on PFAS in drinking water. The regulations will likely go into effect by 2023.
The EPA first announced its plan to regulate PFAS in October 2021. Updating the health advisories is the first step toward more firmly regulating the chemicals. The advisory specifies the level of PFAS that a person may be exposed to every day of their life without experiencing negative health effects.
Since 2016, the EPA has worked on a safe limit of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS—two of the most notorious PFAS. The new health advisories set those limits much lower, at 0.004 ppt for PFOA and 0.02 ppt for PFOS.
Because water testing technology isn’t currently sensitive enough to pick up on such low levels of PFAS, the agency said utilities should take action as soon as they are detected—at about 4 ppt.
For the first time, the EPA announced additional health advisories for two chemicals, called GenX and PFBS. These newer PFAS are chemically similar to PFOA and PFOS and are sometimes used in place of legacy PFAS. The threshold for GenX is now at 10 ppt and PFBS levels are limited to 2,000 ppt.
About 15 years ago, the EPA reached a voluntary agreement with large PFAS manufacturers to phase out most uses of PFOA and PFOS. But chemical companies have largely replaced these PFAS with similarly harmful chemicals, Benesh said.
For this reason, activists and PFAS researchers have long advocated for the chemicals to be regulated as a class. By the time regulators reign in one PFAS, manufacturers may introduce another to replace it.
“The ones that we have studied have really alarming health effects, and they share a lot of similarities with some of the PFAS that are not as well studied,” Benesh said.
States and municipal water utilities can use the advisories to guide clean-up efforts in highly affected communities and inform states’ efforts to limit how much PFAS manufacturers can release into the environment.
The EPA said it expects to propose a national drinking water regulation for PFOA and PFOS later this year. The final rule is expected in late 2023.
“That would actually require drinking water systems to monitor for these chemicals treat for these chemicals, which will make a big difference,” Benesh said.
In the meantime, the new advisory sets important benchmarks for regulators who are trying to “understand the scale of contamination in their communities” and the potential health impacts, she added.
A bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year sets aside $5 billion for addressing PFAS and other drinking water contaminants. Last week, the EPA invited states, Tribes, and territories to apply for $1 billion of the funding.
These funds may be used for water quality testing, technical assistance, contractor training, and installation of centralized treatment in water treatment plants.
In addition to scrubbing existing toxins from communities, Benesh said it’s important to “turn off the tap” by imposing restrictions on chemical companies.
Already, some states and water districts are suing chemical companies, partially to offset the costs of clean-up efforts. Bilott and other lawyers are tackling PFAS manufacturers in private courts.
“We should be doing everything we can to make sure those companies pay the costs of having contaminated our drinking water all across this country—not the governmental entities or innocent American taxpayers who were never even warned any of this was ever happening,” Bilott said.
PFAS are so widespread that it is nearly impossible to avoid the chemicals. You can minimize your exposure by opting for products that are labeled PFAS-free.