On April 10, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) issued the first-ever national, legally enforceable drinking water standard to protect communities from exposure to harmful per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as “forever chemicals.”

Exposure to PFAS has been linked to deadly cancers, impacts to the liver and heart, and immune and developmental damage to infants and children. This final rule represents the most significant step to protect public health under EPA’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap. The final rule will reduce PFAS exposure for approximately 100 million people, prevent thousands of deaths, and reduce tens of thousands of serious illnesses. The announcement complements President Joe Biden’s government-wide action plan to combat PFAS pollution.

In addition to the new rule, the U.S. EPA is announcing nearly $1 billion in newly available funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help states and territories implement PFAS testing and treatment at public water systems and to help owners of private wells address PFAS contamination. This is part of a $9 billion investment through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help communities with drinking water impacted by PFAS and other emerging contaminants – the largest-ever investment in tackling PFAS pollution. An additional $12 billion is available through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for general drinking water improvements, including addressing emerging contaminants like PFAS.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan joined White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory to announce the final standard at an event in Fayetteville, North Carolina. In 2017, area residents learned that the Cape Fear River, the drinking water source for one million people in the region, had been heavily contaminated with PFAS pollution from a nearby manufacturing facility.

“Drinking water contaminated with PFAS has plagued communities across this country for too long,” said U.S. EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “That is why President Biden has made tackling PFAS a top priority, investing historic resources to address these harmful chemicals and protect communities nationwide. Our PFAS Strategic Roadmap marshals the full breadth of EPA’s authority and resources to protect people from these harmful forever chemicals. Today, I am proud to finalize this critical piece of our Roadmap, and in doing so, save thousands of lives and help ensure our children grow up healthier.”

EPA estimates that between about six per cent and 10 per cent of the 66,000 public drinking water systems subject to this rule may have to take action to reduce PFAS to meet these new standards. All public water systems have three years to complete their initial monitoring for these chemicals. They must inform the public of the level of PFAS measured in their drinking water. Where PFAS is found at levels that exceed these standards, systems must implement solutions to reduce PFAS in their drinking water within five years.

The new limits in this rule are achievable using a range of available technologies and approaches including granular activated carbon, reverse osmosis, and ion exchange systems.

EPA’s integrated approach to PFAS is focused on three central directives:

  1. Research: Invest in research, development, and innovation to increase understanding of PFAS exposures and toxicities, human health and ecological effects, and effective interventions that incorporate the best available science.
  2. Restrict: Pursue a comprehensive approach to proactively prevent PFAS from entering air, land, and water at levels that can adversely impact human health and the environment.
  3. Remediate: Broaden and accelerate the cleanup of PFAS contamination to protect human health and ecological systems.

“The first national drinking water standards for PFAS marks a significant step towards delivering on the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to advancing environmental justice, protecting communities, and securing clean water for people across the country,” said Brenda Mallory, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

“For decades, the American people have been exposed to the family of incredibly toxic ‘forever chemicals’ known as PFAS with no protection from their government. Those chemicals now contaminate virtually all Americans from birth. That’s because for generations, PFAS chemicals slid off of every federal environmental law like a fried egg off a Teflon pan — until Joe Biden came along,” said Environmental Working Group President and Co-Founder Ken Cook.

“We commend EPA Administrator Michael Regan for his tireless leadership to make this decision a reality, and CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory for making sure PFAS is tackled with the ‘whole of government’ approach President Biden promised. There is much work yet to be done to end PFAS pollution. The fact that the EPA has adopted the very strong policy announced today should give everyone confidence that the Biden administration will stay the course and keep the president’s promises, until the American people are protected, at long last, from the scourge of PFAS pollution.”

When it comes to Canadian regulation of PFAS, the federal government and the provinces are lagging. Click here for Environment Journal’s latest overview on PFAS pollution in Canada and the lack of regulation. Hopefully the U.S. EPA’s recent initiative will help move the needle in Canada.

Featured image credit: Getty Images

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