Safe drinking water advocates applauded the public pressure which forced the EPA on Thursday to announce it would regulate substances known as "forever chemicals"—but warned the new rules could take years to have an impact on water safety.
Public interest organizations like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Food & Water Watch for years pressured the EPA to limit per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in drinking water. The agency on Thursday announced it had proposed a "regulatory determination" period to set a national drinking standard for two of the thousands of substances which fall under the PFAS category: PFOA, formerly used to make Teflon, and PFOS, formerly an ingredient in Scotchgard.
"EPA has wasted decades deciding whether to regulate PFAS. Today's decision shows that an avalanche of public pressure and overwhelming science is finally forcing EPA to act."
—Melanie Benesh, EWG"EPA has wasted decades deciding whether to regulate PFAS," said EWG legislative attorney Melanie Benesh. "Today's decision shows that an avalanche of public pressure and overwhelming science is finally forcing EPA to act."
Benesh warned, however, that it "could take many more years before a drinking water standard is finalized," and advised state regulators to set their own safety standards.
"States should not wait for the EPA to act," she said in a statement.
The environmental law group Earthjustice estimates that PFAS contaminate the drinking water of at least 16 million people in 33 states and Puerto Rico, and groundwater in at least 38 states.
In a study released by EWG last month, only one location out of 44 places in 31 states and the District of Columbia was found to have tap water with no detectable PFAS. Miami, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and the northern New Jersey suburbs of New York City have been found to have some of the highest levels of the substances.
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PFAS have been linked to certain cancers, reproductive health harms, and other public health concerns. Environmental scientists call them "forever chemicals" because they don't break down easily in the environment and can stay in a person's system for decades after exposure.
The EPA recommends that drinking water contain no more that 70 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFAS, but the standard is not mandatory and is far higher than the level recommended by EWG and several independent studies: just 1 ppt.
"EPA's lax attitude toward industry's responsibility to monitor and cleanup the industry chemical is putting 2.3 million children who attend school less than five miles from PFAS contamination sites at risk," tweeted the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
The @EPA's lax attitude toward industry’s responsibility to monitor and cleanup the industry chemical #PFAS is putting 2.3 million children who attend school less than 5 miles from PFAS contamination sites at risk. We need to #ProtectKids not industry. https://t.co/djpjkfTc1J
— Union of Concerned Scientists (@UCSUSA) February 20, 2020
The EPA's Thursday announcement begins a two-year period during which it will determine a new safety standard. It could take years, however, to actually enforce the new regulations. The agency also "appears poised to approve four new varieties of PFAS in 2020," according to a recent HuffPost report.
"EPA's process to regulate chemicals like PFOA and PFOS presumes they are innocent until proven guilty," tweeted Dr. David Michaels, former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). "Opponents of regulation can delay the process by manufacturing uncertainty about scientific evidence. We badly need a new system that protects people rather than chemicals."