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EPA announces first-ever national regulations for "forever chemicals" in drinking water

EPA sets rules for PFAS in drinking water
EPA sets new rule for "forever chemicals" in drinking water 02:06

For the first time ever, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday it is issuing a national regulation limiting the amount of certain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, found in drinking water.

Commonly called "forever chemicals," PFAS are synthetic chemicals found nearly everywhere — in air, water, and soil — and can take thousands of years to break down in the environment.

The EPA has stated there is no safe level of exposure to PFAS without risk of health impacts, but now it will require that public water utilities test for six different types of PFAS chemicals to reduce exposure in drinking water. The new standards will reduce PFAS exposure for 100 million people, according to the EPA, and prevent thousands of deaths and illnesses.

"Drinking water contaminated with PFAS has plagued communities across this country for too long," EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement Wednesday.

For public water utility companies to comply with the new drinking water standards, the EPA is making $1 billion available to states and territories to implement PFAS testing and treatment at public water systems. That money is part of a $9 billion investment made possible by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to assist communities impacted by PFAS contamination.

"President Biden believes that everyone deserves access to clean, safe drinking water, and he is delivering on that promise," said Brenda Mallory, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in a statement.

PFAS have been in use since the 1940s, often to repel oil and water, and are heat resistant, which makes them popular for a variety of products. But according to industry documentation, manufacturers have known for decades that PFAS are toxic.

"They can be found in everything from nonstick cookware to cleaning and personal care products," said Regan during a press briefing. "But there's no doubt that many of these chemicals can be harmful to our health and our environment."

Research confirms that exposure to certain levels of PFAS in the environment can lead to a range of health issues, from reproductive problems, including decreased fertility, to developmental delays in children and low birth weight, as well as a suppressed immune system, increased cholesterol levels, impacts to the cardiovascular system, and certain types of cancer.

"I think the strongest data is for kidney cancer and then testicular cancer," Dr. Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Sciences, told CBS News. "But evidence is growing for several other forms of cancer."

Critics argue the EPA didn't go far enough because there are more than 15,000 PFAS chemicals, and this standard only regulates six.

"I think that we need to begin addressing PFAS as a whole class of chemicals," Birnbaum said. "And we need to ask the question, do we really need them?"

The EPA estimates that of the 66,000 public water utility systems impacted by the standard, 6% to 10% may need to act to comply with the regulations. Operators will have three years to test for PFAS pollution, then an additional two years to identify, purchase and install necessary technology to treat contaminated water.

Erik D. Olson, senior strategic director of health at the Natural Resources Defense Council, tells CBS News that the EPA estimates it will cost about $1.5 billion "to treat all this water and to protect people's health. The benefits, in our view, far outweigh those costs."

Despite knowing the risks for several years, it's taken a significant amount of time to regulate PFAS on the federal level.

"There's just a huge amount of political opposition from the chemical industry and, frankly, from some of the water utilities, that don't want EPA to regulate these chemicals, because they know that once EPA cracks down on them, it's going to cost them a lot of money, and they don't want to spend that money," Olson said.

While the onus on clean up will come at the cost of the water utility companies, the new regulations do little to hold polluters accountable for the damage PFAS have done to the environment and human health. There have been several major settlements in recent years by chemical companies over PFAS contamination, a notable one being a $10.3 billion settlement reached by 3M in June 2023.

If you want to limit your exposure to PFAS in drinking water, you can ask your water utility how it is testing for the chemicals, or have your water tested by a state-certified laboratory using EPA-testing standards. There are several technologies available to purchase to filter PFAS from your home water source. As for PFAS found in other common goods, there are several running lists to help track which companies have banned PFAS from their products.

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