Chemicals, Special Topics in Environmental Management

The Latest on PFAS and Drinking Water

As we move into the last month of the summer, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water are a hot topic for many states and the EPA.

Drinking water

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On June 22, 2020, the EPA finalized a Significant New Use Rule giving the Agency the authority to review many products containing PFAS before they can be imported, sold, or manufactured in the United States.

“The rule designates the manufacturing, importing or processing of an identified subset of long-chain PFAS—long-chain perfluoroalkyl carboxylate (LCPFAC) substances—as a significant new use if it was not already ongoing as of Dec. 31, 2015,” according to a report in Lexology. “The rule requires companies to notify the EPA at least 90 days before beginning a new use of LCPFAC (long-chain perfluoroalkyl carboxylate), and not to begin the use until the EPA gives its permission in the Federal Register; the EPA may also permit a new use, but place restrictions on it.… The rule is structured to enable EPA to prospectively control the amount of PFAS that may be released into the environment by evaluating proposed new uses and deciding whether to allow them.”

The environmental advocacy group Environmental Working Group (EWG) previously reported in 2019 that “[a]n EWG analysis of unreleased EPA test data estimated that more than 1,500 drinking water systems, serving up to 110 million Americans, may be contaminated with PFAS chemicals.”

The EWG released a new report on January 22, 2020.

“Based on our tests and new academic research that found PFAS widespread in rainwater, EWG scientists now believe PFAS is likely detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S., almost certainly in all that use surface water,” according to the EWG’s website. “EWG’s tests also found chemicals from the PFAS family that are not commonly tested for in drinking water.”

PFAS are a group of manufactured chemicals that include chemicals known as perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and GenX. There are nearly 5,000 different types of PFAS, some of which have been more widely used and studied than others, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

They have been produced by a variety of industries since 1940 for use in “water and stain repellant materials, as well as fast-acting firefighting products,” according to the EPA. These chemicals are also found in paint, nonstick Teflon, cleaning products, and food packaging materials. PFAS are known for their ability to repel oil and water.

“While the use of older variants of PFAS have been widely discontinued, legacy uses and a lack of commercially viable alternatives to certain public safety products (e.g., fire-fighting foams) have resulted in PFAS contamination in certain areas,” according to an EPA Week in Review Report dated July 31, 2020.

PFAS are often referred to as “forever chemicals” due to their persistent nature in both the human body and the environment.

“They are all identified by signature elemental bonds of fluorine and carbon, which are extremely strong and what make it so difficult for these chemicals to disintegrate in the environment or in our bodies,” according to a report by CNN.

Within our bodies, PFAS tend to settle in the liver and kidneys and have been linked to “liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression and cancer,” according to CNN.

PFAS migrate easily through water, dust, soil, and the air.

“I think that people should be concerned about the amount of PFOA and PFOS that is in our environment,” stated Susan M. Pinney, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health at the University of Cincinnati, in the CNN report. “These are chemicals with long half-lives.”

One of the scariest facts about PFAS is that they accumulate over time, meaning they continue adding up to higher levels in the environment and in human bodies.

“A study from 2007 by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that PFAS chemicals could be detected in the blood of 98% of the US population,” according to the CNN report.

“Finding a measurable amount of PFAS in serum does not imply that the levels of PFAS cause an adverse health effect,” according to the CDC.

Pinney disagrees.

“Exposure in utero may have the greatest effect on developing children … and effects may last into adulthood,” Pinney said, although she concedes the science on these effects is still in the early stages.

The two most studied PFAS chemicals are PFOS and PFOA, according to CNN. The EPA identified these two contaminants as an “emerging concern” in November 2017.

3M was one of the main manufacturers of PFOS, and the company voluntarily phased out its production beginning in 2000. PFOA began to be phased out in 2006.  Neither chemical is produced in the United States, nor are they imported, according to CNN. However, similar “replacement chemicals for PFOA and PFOS such as GenX, may be just as persistent,” Pinney said in the CNN report.

The EPA released a lifetime health advisory in November 2016 that limited combined exposures to PFOA and PFOS at 70 parts per trillion (ppt). These health advisories are unenforceable. Drinking water health advisories are “based on the agency’s assessment of the latest peer-reviewed science” and are designed to “provide drinking water system operators, and state, tribal and local officials who have the primary responsibility for overseeing these systems, with information on the health risks of these chemicals, so they can take the appropriate actions to protect their residents,” according to the EPA.

In May 2016, the initiation of a four-step action plan to erase PFOA and PFOS from drinking water was announced by the previous EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt. His plan “included initiating steps toward establishing an enforceable maximum contaminant standard for the two chemicals and regulating them as a ‘hazardous substance,’” according to CNN.

In November 2018, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, issued a report indicating that the “minimal risk levels” for oral exposure to PFOS and PFOA should be set at:

  • PFOA: 78 ppt (adult) and 21 ppt (child)
  • PFOS: 52 ppt (adult) and 14 ppt (child)

This report indicated that the threshold levels set by the EPA should be lowered, according to CNN.

USA water map

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State-by-State Regulations

There are 152 current policies in 30 states and 25 adopted policies in 12 states regarding PFAS in drinking water, according to Safer States, a coalition dedicated to turning “off the tap on over 3,000 chemicals in this class” and ensuring “safe drinking water for all.”

Safer States lists several incidents in which PFAS have allegedly caused health problems across the United States. “Residents of the Ohio River Valley in West Virginia were systematically exposed to PFAS for several decades through intentional dumping of chemicals by DuPont while the company had knowledge of the health risks,” according to the organization’s website. “Similar stories play out across the nation, such as 3M’s pollution of drinking water in Minnesota and high incidences of cancer resulting from fouled water in Hoosick Falls, NY.”

As of February 5, 2020, estimates costs of cleanup for PFAS to have cost taxpayers $616,218,601.

“Several states have adopted or proposed health guidelines or Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for PFAS in their state,” according to Safer States. “States with adopted limits include CA, CT, CO, MN, NC, NH, NJ, and VT, and states with proposed limits include IL, MA, MI, and NY.”

There have also been several lawsuits filed by sates against the manufacturers of PFAS chemicals due to contaminated water sources. “These include MI, MN (settled), NH, NJ, NM, NY, OH, and VT,” according to Safer States.

NY Takes Action

On July 30, 2020, the New York State Department of Health announced its final step in establishing “Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), and 1,4-dioxane, three toxic emerging contaminants found in drinking water across the state” according to Earthjustice.

“DOH’s Public Health and Health Planning Council voted to set MCLs at 10 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA, 10 ppt for PFOS, and 1 part per billion (ppb) for 1,4-dioxane,” stated Earthjustice’s news release. “The MCLs will require all water systems in New York to test for these harmful chemicals and remove them from drinking water when the MCLs are exceeded. Over 2,000 small water systems, which together serve more than 2 million New Yorkers, have never been required to test for PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane.”

While clean water advocates are encouraged by the state’s actions in setting MCLs for PFAS, they say there is still more to be done.

“We will continue to urge Governor Cuomo to strengthen these regulations through regular reviews going forward,” said Rob Hayes, clean water associate at Environmental Advocates NY. “The science is clear: to protect people from cancer and other health hazards, New York must remove all PFAS from drinking water. Quick action is needed; it took almost five years for Governor Cuomo’s administration to set these MCLs, and we can’t afford to wait that long for new drinking water standards.”

Setting Safer Standards

Clean water advocates have identified four main areas they claim will ensure safe drinking water for New Yorkers, according to Earthjustice:

  • “Regulate PFAS as a class, and limit these chemicals in drinking water to the lowest detectable and treatable levels.”
  • “Establish an Emerging Contaminant Monitoring List.”
  • “Invest at least $1 billion annually in the Clean Water Infrastructure Act (CWIA) to ensure adequate funding for treatment technology.”
  • “Ensure data transparency.”

The data surrounding PFAS clearly indicate that these dangers were unknown when the chemicals were first produced. So, replacement chemicals could be just as harmful, and the potential dangers are unknown as of yet. There are other chemicals detectable in water supplies that are not currently regulated. “Many chemicals harmful to human health, like strontium and chromium-6, are currently unregulated in drinking water,” according to Earthjustice.

Chemical research, PFAS

Syda Productions /

New EPA PFAS Actions

In addition to the Significant New Use Rule, in July, the EPA announced significant progress on its PFAS Action Plan, touting it as “the most comprehensive cross-agency plan ever to address an emerging chemical of concern.”

On July 27, 2020, the Agency submitted two news proposals regarding PFAS to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for interagency review:

  • Interim Guidance on the Destruction and Disposal of PFAS and Materials Containing PFAS: provides information on technologies that have been identified that could be “appropriate for the destruction or disposal of PFAS and PFAS-containing materials”
  • Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule 5 (UCMR 5): proposes “nationwide drinking water monitoring for PFAS under UCMR 5 utilizing new methods that can detect PFAS that could not be detected before as the new methods detect more PFAS chemicals at lower concentrations than previously possible”

The Agency characterizes these steps as its first step in “fulfilling its FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) obligation to publish interim guidance on the destruction and disposal of PFAS within one year.”

For more information on EPA nationwide and regional activity regarding PFAS, see the EPA Week in Review: PFAS Edition.

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