WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed the first federal limits on harmful "forever chemicals" in drinking water, a long-awaited protection the agency said will save thousands of lives and prevent serious illnesses, including cancer.
The plan would limit toxic PFAS chemicals to the lowest level that tests can detect. PFAS, or per- and polyfluorinated substances, are a group of compounds that are widespread, dangerous, and expensive to remove from water. They don't degrade in the environment and are linked to a broad range of health issues, including low birthweight and kidney cancer.
"The science is clear that long-term exposure to PFAS is linked to significant health risks," Radhika Fox, assistant EPA administrator for water, said in an interview.
Fox called the federal proposal a "transformational change" for improving the safety of drinking water in the United States. The agency estimates the rule could reduce PFAS exposure for nearly 100 million Americans, decreasing rates of cancer, heart attacks, and birth complications.
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The chemicals had been used since the 1940s, including in nonstick pans, food packaging, and firefighting foam. Their use is now mostly phased out in the U.S., but some still remain.
The proposal would set strict limits of 4 parts per trillion, the lowest level that can be reliably measured, for two common types of PFAS compounds called PFOA and PFOS. In addition, the EPA wants to regulate the combined amount of four other types of PFAS. Water providers will have to monitor for PFAS.
The public will have a chance to comment, and the agency can make changes before issuing a final rule, expected by the end of the year.
The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators called the proposal "a step in the right direction" but said compliance will be challenging. Despite available federal money, "significant rate increases will be required for most of the systems" that must remove PFAS, the group said Tuesday.
Environmental and public health advocates have called for federal regulation of PFAS chemicals for years. Over the last decade, the EPA has repeatedly strengthened its protective, voluntary health thresholds for the chemicals but has not imposed mandatory limits on water providers.
Public concern has increased in recent years as testing reveals PFAS chemicals in a growing list of communities that are often near manufacturing plants or Air Force bases.
Until now, only a handful of states have issued PFAS regulations, and none has set limits as strict as what the EPA is proposing. By regulating PFOA and PFOS at the minimum amounts that tests can detect, the EPA is proposing the tightest possible standards that are technically feasible, experts said.
"This is a really historic moment," said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. "There are many communities that have had PFAS in their water for decades who have been waiting for a long time for this announcement to come out."
The agency said its proposal will protect everyone, including vulnerable communities, and reduce illness on a massive scale. The EPA wants water providers to do testing, notify the public when PFAS are found, and remove the compounds when levels are too high.
Utilities that have high levels of contaminant are typically given time to fix problems, but they could face fines or loss of federal grants if problems persist.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents large chemical companies, slammed EPA's "misguided approach" and said, "these low limits will likely result in billions of dollars in compliance costs.''
In a statement Tuesday, the group said it has "serious concerns with the underlying science used to develop" the proposed rule, adding: "It's critical that EPA gets the science right.''
The proposal would also regulate other types of PFAS like GenX Chemicals, which manufacturers used as a substitute when PFOA and PFOS were phased out of consumer products. The proposal would regulate the cumulative health threat of those compounds and mandate treatment if that threat is too high.
"Communities across this country have suffered far too long from the ever-present threat of PFAS pollution, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said. The EPA's proposal could prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses, he said, and stands as a "major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants."
Emily Donovan, the co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, which advocates for cleaning up a PFAS-contaminated stretch of North Carolina, said it was important to make those who released the compounds into the environment pay cleanup costs.
The EPA recently made $2 billion available to states to get rid of contaminants such as PFAS and will release billions more in coming years. The agency also is providing technical support to smaller communities that will soon be forced to install treatment systems, and there's funding in the 2021 infrastructure law for water system upgrades.
Still, it will be expensive for utilities to install new equipment, and the burden will be especially tough for small towns with fewer resources.
"This is a problem that has been handed over to utilities through no fault of their own," said Sri Vedachalam, director of water equity and climate resilience at Environmental Consulting & Technology Inc.
Many communities will need to balance the new PFAS requirements with removing poisonous lead pipes and replacing aged water mains prone to rupturing, Vedachalam said.
Fox said there "isn't a one-size answer" to how communities will prioritize their needs but said billions of dollars in federal resources are available for water improvements.
With federal help, water providers that serve metropolitan areas should be able to spread out costs in a way "no one will notice,'' said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that works to get toxic chemicals out of food, water, clothing, and other items.
Several states have already imposed PFAS drinking water limits. Officials in Michigan, which has the tightest standards of any state, said costs to remove PFAS in communities where it was found were reasonable.
Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council called the EPA proposal crucial to protect public health. "Setting strong standards will help ensure the fundamental right of every family to have safe water flowing from their kitchen tap,'' he said.
Phillis reported from St. Louis.