The USA has proposed placing the first ever federal limits on toxic 'forever chemicals' in drinking water.
The chemicals have been found to be dangerous in amounts so small as to be undetectable.
Restricting them will save thousands of lives and prevent serious illnesses, including cancer, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said on Tuesday.
Under the proposal, harmful PFAS chemicals would be limited to the lowest level that tests can detect - but experts say removing them will cost billions.
What are 'forever chemicals' and why are they dangerous?
'Forever chemicals' refers to PFAS, or per- and polyfluorinated substances, a large family of human-made chemicals that don’t occur in nature. They are known as ‘forever chemicals’ because they don’t break down in the environment.
The chemicals have non-stick or stain repellent properties. They had been used since the 1940s in consumer products and industry, including in nonstick pans, food packaging and firefighting foam. Their use is now mostly phased out in the US, but some still remain.
This group of compounds is widespread, dangerous and expensive to remove from water. They are linked to a broad range of health issues, including low birthweight and kidney cancer.
Safe guideline levels for some of these forever chemicals have dropped dramatically over the last two decades due to new insights into their toxicity.
“The science is clear that long-term exposure to PFAS is linked to significant health risks,” says Radhika Fox, assistant EPA administrator for water.
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.
Fox calls 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.
How widespread is the forever chemical problem?
Research released last August revealed that there are unsafe levels of forever chemicals in rainwater almost everywhere on Earth - including Antarctica. They have also been found in the breastmilk of mothers living near chemical plants in France.
This year, an investigation exposed more than 17,000 site across Europe as being exposed to PFAS. Of these, 2,100 sites were deemed as hotspots - places where contamination reaches levels that are hazardous to human health.
Even with limits in place, it is expected that this pollution could remain with us for centuries or even millennia.
How would the proposal limit PFAS in the US?
The long-awaited protection would set strict limits of four 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 the chemicals through testing, notify the public when PFAS are found and remove the compounds when levels are too high.
Utilities that have high levels of a contaminant are typically given time to fix problems, but they could face fines or loss of federal grants if problems persist.
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” needed to remove PFAS, the group said on Tuesday.
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.
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 say.
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 'historic' protection will reduce illness on a huge scale
Environmental and public health advocates have called for federal regulation of PFAS chemicals for years.
“This is a really historic moment,” says 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 EPA said its proposal will protect everyone, including vulnerable communities, and reduce illness on a massive scale.
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 cumulative health threat of those compounds would be monitored and water treatment would be mandated if that threat is too high.
“Communities across this country have suffered far too long from the ever-present threat of PFAS pollution,” says EPA administrator Michael Regan. The EPA’s proposal could prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses, he adds, and stands as a “major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants.”
What do chemical and water companies say about the proposal?
The American Chemistry Council, which represents large chemical companies, has slammed EPA’s “misguided approach”.
In a statement made on Tuesday, the group said “These low limits will likely result in billions of dollars in compliance costs.” It added that it has “serious concerns with the underlying science used to develop" the proposed rule and “It’s critical that EPA gets the science right.”
Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, which advocates for cleaning up a PFAS-contaminated stretch of North Carolina, says it is important to make those who released the compounds into the environment pay cleanup costs.
Will companies receive financial aid to clean up PFAS?
The EPA recently made $2 billion (€1.9 bn) 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,” says 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 adds.
Fox says there “isn't a one-size answer” to how communities will prioritise their needs but says 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”, says Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organisation 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, say costs to remove PFAS were reasonable.
Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council calls 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 says.
Are forever chemicals regulated in the EU?
In February, the European Union began considering a ban on PFAS.
Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark - all of which have strong internal rules on PFAS - jointly submitted a proposal to have the toxic substances restricted throughout the bloc.
In a joint statement, the five countries said that, if passed, it would become “one of the largest bans on chemical substances ever in Europe”.
Once the ban is in force, companies will be given between 18 months and 12 years to introduce alternatives to the more than 10,000 PFAS affected, depending on the availability of alternatives, according to the draft proposal. The phase out would continue through the late 2030s.