EPA blasted for failing to set drinking water limits for ‘forever chemicals’

By Natasha Gilbert

Fire fighting foams often include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which have contaminated water supplies across the United States.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

After intense pressure from politicians and environmental and public health groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today published a plan to tackle industrial chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are showing up in drinking water supplies across the nation. But critics say the plan is vague and lacks regulatory teeth, and it will do little to reduce health risks.

PFAS chemicals are widely used to make nonstick and water-proof products, including foams used to fight fires. The compounds can persist in the environment for decades, leading some to dub them “forever chemicals.” And studies have linked them to cancer and developmental defects, raising health concerns.

In May 2018, EPA said it would develop a plan to tackle the substances in drinking water. Many were hoping the agency would set national regulatory limits on PFAS concentrations in water supplies. But the plan released today puts little meat on the bones of last year’s promises.

EPA has “only laid out a small, tentative step toward considering how to manage this widespread threat. This proposal doesn’t mean the EPA will take serious action—it could just kick the can down the road for years, leaving vulnerable communities at risk,” said Genna Reed, the lead science and policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a statement.

By the end of the year, EPA officials say they will begin the process of setting legal drinking water limits on two of the most well-known PFAS compounds, known as PFOA and PFOS. Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a press conference that he “can’t say how long it would take” for the limits to come into force. But he emphasized he had “every intention” of enforcing an existing EPA “health advisory” level, which is set at 70 parts per trillion. EPA considers that limit protective of human health, but scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta have argued in a study that the EPA level is far too high.

EPA also says it has taken the first regulatory steps toward listing PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. This will enable the agency to hold companies and others that release PFAS into the environment responsible for cleanup costs.

Some scientists welcomed the plan’s focus on collecting more data on a wider range of PFAS chemicals (there are hundreds in use). By 2020, EPA will monitor PFAS chemicals more broadly using more sensitive tools to enable detection at much lower concentrations, the plan says. A federal study published earlier this month shows that other PFAS substances are becoming more common. EPA also plans to study the human health impacts of PFAS more generally.

Jamie DeWitt, an environmental toxicologist at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, says, “We still need more data on exposure pathways and health effects. … As a scientist I don’t know what PFAS to evaluate for health effects until I know which ones are in the environment and at what levels. Monitoring helps us to understand exposure.”

In Congress, some lawmakers accused EPA of dragging its feed. EPA should “treat this public health threat with the urgency it deserves,” said Senator Tom Carper (DE), top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, in a statement. His committee plans to hold a hearing on EPA’s plan later this year.