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EPA proposes national standard targeting 'forever chemicals' in drinking water

The proposal would set maximum contaminant levels for PFAS, a class of chemicals known to pose significant health risks, including increased risk of certain cancers.
A cup of water is drawn from a faucet at Johnny T's Bistro and Blues, a midtown Jackson, Miss., restaurant and entertainment venue, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. Although it is no longer cloudy, owner John Tierre says he has concerns over the city's longstanding water problems. Some business owners report spending anywhere between $300 to $500 per day on ice and bottled water.
Rogelio V. Solis / AP file

The Biden administration announced a proposal Tuesday to reduce harmful chemicals in drinking water, the first time the federal government has suggested setting such a standard for the so-called forever chemicals.

The Environmental Protection Agency's proposal would limit per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, by establishing legally enforceable levels for six manufactured chemicals that are known to contaminate drinking water and pose significant health risks, including cancer, even at low levels.

The proposal would set maximum contaminant levels permitted in drinking water for several synthetic chemicals that are slow to break down. If it is implemented, the regulation would require public water systems to monitor the chemicals and alert the public if the chemicals rise above established thresholds.

In a 2020 study, scientists at the Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy group, estimated that over 200 million residents in the U.S. could have PFAS in their drinking water at a concentration of 1 part per trillion or higher.

Under the administration's proposal, certain PFAS chemicals would be limited to 4 parts per trillion.

The EPA continues to face harsh criticism over its handling of potential contamination concerns after a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Ohio last month, spilling toxic chemicals in the town of East Palestine.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan, whose agency last year proposed designating two PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, said Tuesday that the proposed limits could prevent thousands of illnesses.

“Communities across this country have suffered far too long from the ever-present threat of PFAS pollution,” Regan said. “This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants."

PFAS have been detected in more than 2,400 drinking water systems and hundreds of military installations, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group.

The proposed regulation would be the first at the federal level aimed at limiting PFAS. Ten states have enacted enforceable drinking water limits for the chemicals.

The actor and activist Mark Ruffalo praised the proposal in a statement released by the Environmental Working Group.

“After decades of delay, President Biden’s EPA has delivered a drinking water standard” for such chemicals that will be the toughest in the country, Ruffalo said, adding, “By proposing to regulate four other PFAS as a mixture, the Biden EPA is also putting our communities ahead of the polluters.”