Cancer-linked PFAS — known as ‘forever chemicals’ — could be banned in drinking water for first time

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The federal government for the first time ever is proposing to demand utilities remove from drinking water toxic chemicals known to cause health issues, including certain types of cancer.

The Environmental Protection Agency will require near-zero levels of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, part of a classification of chemicals known as PFAS. That’s a much higher bar than previous regulation. Exposure to some of the chemicals has been linked to cancer, liver damage, fertility and thyroid problems, asthma and other health effects.

The push has also called for manufacturers and retailers to take a stand against using PFAS, which some trade groups have already done. Some PFAS were first created as part of World War II-era atomic-bomb campaigns and later pushed into wider use.

In fact, PFAS, also dubbed “forever chemicals,” are ubiquitous in modern lifestyles. They’re part of the manufacturing of everything from stain-resistant and waterproof clothing to cookware, dental floss and toilet paper. Even newborn babies have been found to carry these chemicals in their bloodstream, according to at least one study.

Read: World Water Day raises alarm for groundwater and ‘forever chemicals’ — how to invest

EPA Administrator Michael Regan this week announced the tougher rules, which the agency had been working on for some time, given the cost to remove PFAS and their presence in so many products and services. The EPA will accept public comments on the proposed regulation for 60 days before it will take effect and become the legal limit.

In all, the agency wants to require public water systems to monitor for six PFAS, inform the public if PFAS levels exceed proposed standards in the drinking-water supply, and take action to reduce PFAS levels.

Last year, the EPA found the chemicals could cause harm at levels “much lower than previously understood” and that almost no level of exposure was safe. It advised that drinking water contain no more than 0.004 parts per trillion of perfluorooctanoic acid and 0.02 parts per trillion of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, the two chemicals among the six given the highest priority. Previously, the agency had advised that drinking water contain no more than 70 parts per trillion of the chemicals.

“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,” Regan said.

In Colorado, which has more contaminated sites than any other U.S. state, dozens of water sources will have to be addressed, the Denver Post reported.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican who has worked on the issue, welcomed the announcement. She added in a statement, however, that she wants to hear from water providers and utility customers to weigh how the standards would affect them and how Congress can help.

The forever chemicals do not break down in the environment, meaning they seep into soil, groundwater and rivers and creeks. As many as 200 million Americans are exposed to PFAS in their tap water, according to a peer-reviewed 2020 study.

“Pervasive PFAS should be a thing of the past and this EPA proposal puts us on the right path,” said the U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s environment campaigns director, Matt Casale.

“Too many Americans are exposed every day to these ubiquitous chemicals that lurk around our house and in our pipes,” he said. “Saying ‘nevermore’ to ‘forever chemicals’ in our drinking water is the right thing to do. These new standards are a realistic way to start that process.”

The American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, said the primary two chemicals being regulated were largely phased out of production by its members eight years ago.

The group said in a statement it supported drinking-water standards for the chemicals based on “the best available science,” but questioned the EPA’s rationale and said the new rulemaking would be an “overly conservative approach” that was misguided.

For sure, some companies are trying to get ahead of tougher regulation and potential lawsuits if they underreport.

Late last year, 3M Co.

said it would stop making forever chemicals and aimed to discontinue their use in products by the end of 2025.

The announcement marked a historic break with the industry and the rethinking of an entire class of these chemicals used for more than 70 years at 3M in its Scotchgard treatment and other uses.

Read next: 3M will stop making harmful PFAS found in hundreds of household items — what are ‘forever chemicals’?

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