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Environmental advocates applaud new EPA limits on forever chemicals in drinking water

Tap water runs over a sink.
PFAS contamination has been detected in the drinking water of 149 Ohio communities, according to Environmental Working Group.

The EPA on Wednesday announced new legally enforceable standards to limit the amount of forever chemicals, also called PFAS, permitted in public drinking water systems.

The new standards are expected to protect 100 million people from PFAS exposure, said Michael Regan, U.S. EPA administrator. More than 5,000 sites across the U.S. are contaminated with PFAS, according to Environmental Working Group.

"This is a historic day, a day I thought I would never see in my lifetime, where we have the top agency here, the U.S. EPA, actually adopting final, enforceable nationwide drinking water standards for a number of PFAS chemicals, including the two that we've seen a lot of information on over the years — PFOA and PFOS," said Robert Bilott, the Cincinnati attorney who first rang the alarm on the dangers of PFAS pollution more than 20 years ago.

Bilott called Wednesday's decision a huge step forward for public health protection in the U.S. because enforceable standards make litigation easier. Until now, use of PFAS has been largely unregulated and most action against PFAS manufacturers has relied on the court system, he said.

"That's a hard, long battle. By starting to actually enact regulatory standards for these, you're providing more tools available to folks that'll be able to come into court and hopefully get things done that we couldn't do before," Bilott said.

But despite celebration of Wednesday's announcement, Bilott noted the next step includes ensuring that victims aren't left footing the bill for safe water.

"The folks who created this problem, the people who made these chemicals and pushed them out into the world for decades, [knew] that they were persistent, that they were bioaccumulative, that they were toxic, that they could be carcinogenic, but they did it anyway. They made billions for many, many years," Bilott said. "We've been trying to do what we can to make sure that those folks are responsible for these costs, particularly for water systems across the country."

Until Wednesday, addressing PFAS pollution was up to the states. Eleven states had already set enforceable Maximum Contaminant Levels for drinking water, which limit the amount of PFAS legally permitted, according to EWG. Ohio was not one of those states.

Melanie Houston, managing director of water policy for Ohio Environmental Council, emphasized the importance of the EPA's decision for Ohioans.

"We know Ohioans will see health benefits from this, including fewer cancers, lower incidence of heart attack and strokes, reduced birth complications, just to name a few," Houston said.

Under the new standards, public water systems have three years to conduct drinking water testing and two additional years to update their treatment processes to bring the PFAS levels into compliance.

"Utilities will have a lot of options, and will have a lot of discretion to figure out what works best for them," said Melanie Banesh, vice president of government affairs for EWG.

She cited several technologies, including granular activated carbon and ion exchange and reverse osmosis, that are already available to treat drinking water.

Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for EWG, noted that PFAS have been detected in the drinking water of 149 Ohio communities. More than half of those communities recorded PFAS detections that are above the new drinking water standards set Wednesday, Faber said.

The EPA also announced $1 billion in federal funding to support testing and upgrades for public drinking water systems and private wells to bring them into compliance with new PFAS contamination limits.

Setting a standard for drinking water is the most cost-effective solution to combating PFAS contamination, Faber said.

The new standards define Maximum Contaminant Levels for several types of PFAS. Separate limits will be set for mixtures of PFAS in drinking water.

Big costs expected

The funding, available through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, will help ensure changes are made within the five years, Regan said, adding that the EPA expects between 6% and 10% of public water systems to be affected by this regulation.

Despite the new funding available, some water utilities have criticized additional regulations for fear that they'll be too onerous or costly to implement. Chemical manufacturers have also resisted regulations on their products.

Faber noted that Congress has provided $10 billion to water utilities to address PFAS contamination, but said the real cost is to people who have received cancer or disease diagnoses as a result of PFAS in their blood.

"Congress is helping with utilities. Private litigation is going against the polluters to help utilities. But we need to keep in mind when we talk about costs, the cost to real people," Faber said.

Bilott said next steps also rely on worldwide efforts to stop PFAS contamination at the source.

"It's going to be additional efforts to stop new and more of these chemicals from coming out," he said. "Which ones are the ones that we should be addressing? What definition are we all going to use for these chemicals, and then, to actually start controlling how much goes out into the world."

What are PFAS?

PFAS, or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are called forever chemicals because they don't break down in the environment. They're found in a variety of household and common objects, from fast food wrappers and nonstick cookware, to Lake Erie walleye and drinking water.

"Unfortunately, you can't see, smell or taste PFAS in water, yet we know Ohioans are exposed to PFAS at the tap," Houston said.

Studies show that PFAS exposure is linked to high cholesterol, increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, decreases in infant birth weights, decreased vaccine response in children and increased risk of high blood pressure or preeclampsia in pregnant women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A family of widely used chemicals has been implicated in a range of illnesses but are still found in common consumer goods - should we be worried about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS? Ideastream Public Media's reporters try to answer that question.

Stephanie Metzger-Lawrence is a digital producer for the engaged journalism team at Ideastream Public Media.
Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.