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EPA proposes limits on toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water

By Shereen Siewert,

Madison, Wis., resident Brad Horn collects a water sample to test for PFAS in Madison, Wis., on Aug. 8, 2022. His family collected the water that came out of their AquaRain brand water filter and sent the water to the Regional Water Authority in Connecticut for testing. The results came back with no detectable levels of PFAS in 17 categories and one result of “below Minimum Reporting Level but greater than the Method Detection Limit” for PFHxS. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday released proposed limits for harmful “forever chemicals” in drinking water to the lowest levels they can be measured, saying it will save thousands of lives and drastically reduce PFAS-related illnesses.

“EPA’s proposal to establish a national standard for PFAS in drinking water is informed by the best available science, and would help provide states with the guidance they need to make decisions that best protect their communities,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a news release. “This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants.”

The proposed limits are less stringent than new health advisory levels for four PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, released last June by the EPA.

The EPA is proposing individual limits for the two most widely studied PFAS chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — at 4 parts per trillion. That’s far lower than Wisconsin’s drinking water standard for PFAS — 70 parts per trillion — that was put in place last year. The EPA wants to regulate the combination of four other PFAS, including PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and GenX chemicals. Federal regulators are basing standards on new science that shows the chemicals may be dangerous at levels far lower than previously thought.

Water systems, public health professionals, the public and others will be able to comment on the proposal. The EPA hopes to issue a final rule by the end of the year.

PFAS are a class of thousands of synthetic chemicals widely used by industry since the 1940s. They’ve been used in everyday products like nonstick cookware, stain-resistant clothing, food wrappers and firefighting foam. The chemicals don’t break down easily in the environment. Research shows high exposure to PFAS has been linked to kidney and testicular cancers, fertility issues, thyroid disease and reduced response to vaccines over time.

The limits are the first proposed standards for the chemicals in drinking water since industry first alerted the EPA to the health hazards of PFAS nearly 25 years ago. Documents show companies like 3M knew PFAS could be toxic and posed health risks as far back as the 1960s.

Last year, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board approved drinking water standards for PFAS that set limits for the chemicals at 70 parts per trillion, weakening the state’s recommended health limits of 20 parts per trillion. Those standards took effect last summer. The board also set standards for PFAS in surface water, but it failed to pass limits on the chemicals in groundwater.

In December, the board voted unanimously to allow Wisconsin environmental regulators to begin crafting health-based standards for PFAS in groundwater — a source of drinking water for one third of state residents who rely on private wells that don’t require testing or treatment. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said it would consider the EPA’s proposed standards as it develops groundwater limits for PFAS.

In Wisconsin, PFAS have been detected in more than 50 communities from small towns like Peshtigo and Campbell to larger cities like Eau Claire, Wausau and Madison. The DNR is actively investigating around 100 sites for PFAS pollution, according to its website tracking environmental cleanups.

Industry groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, or WMC, supported the state’s drinking water standard for PFAS based on the EPA’s previous health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion released in 2016. Even so, they’ve questioned the science behind more restrictive limits on the chemicals.

State industry groups have argued inconsistent state, federal and international standards demonstrate a lack of consensus on appropriate limits for the chemicals. WMC has urged the state to align its standards with the EPA “to protect consumers from the cost of expensive ‘Wisconsin only’ regulatory mandates.”

Both industry and water groups have also highlighted concerns over the cost of complying with more stringent standards. The American Water Works Association estimates treatment of PFAS in drinking water could cost up to $38 billion. In small communities, rural Wisconsin water systems have said the cost to replace a contaminated well may run up to $2 million.

Cities like Wausau and Eau Claire have spent or are planning to spend tens of millions of dollars on systems to treat the chemicals. Utility managers say they’re in a difficult position with responding to contamination from outside sources. Water groups add public systems are already contending with contamination from lead, nitrates and other pollutants.

President Joe Biden’s administration is devoting $10 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure law to address emerging contaminants like PFAS. Gov. Tony Evers also recently proposed more than $100 million in the next two-year state budget to address PFAS.

Evers’ plan would support increased testing and monitoring, funding to provide temporary drinking water to affected households and 11 new positions at the DNR to tackle the chemicals. Republican lawmakers like Sen. Rob Cowles of Green Bay and Sen. Mary Felzkowski from Irma have indicated they may be willing to spend money on PFAS under the budget to address the chemicals.

This story was produced by Wisconsin Public Radio and is being republished by permission. See the original story here.

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