New PFAS Drinking Water Rule Good First Step, but Still Far to Go

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Wednesday, April 10, 2024
Kyla Bennett (508) 230-9933
Tim Whitehouse (240) 247-0299

New PFAS Drinking Water Rule Good First Step, but Still Far to Go

PFAS Must Be Treated as a Class; Chemical-By-Chemical Approach is Futile


Washington, DC The long-awaited action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set enforceable limits on certain forever chemicals in drinking water is commendable, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The nature of this action, however, underscores the huge regulatory task remaining for EPA to effectively prevent further threats to the environment and public health from toxic per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

Today’s action adopts maximum contamination limits (MCLs) in drinking water for two of the oldest and most widespread PFAS at 4 parts per trillion (ppt).  This standard was adopted for technical and cost reasons, despite the fact that EPA concedes there is no safe level of ingestion for these two PFAS, just two of an estimated 14,000 PFAS. The rule also sets limits of 10 ppt for three other PFAS – PFHxS, PFNA, and HFPO-DA (also known as GenX) – and sets a mixture limit of these three PFAS with PFBS using a Hazard Index calculation. Public water systems have five years to reduce these PFAS below the MCLs.

“The Biden administration is to be congratulated for sticking to its guns in the face of ferocious industry lobbying,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, a former senior EPA enforcement attorney, noting that the only slippage from the proposed to the final rule was extending the compliance phase-in from three to five years. “Yet, today’s action represents only a baby step because effective control of PFAS will require a cradle-to-grave regulatory regime from manufacture to ultimate disposal.”

One fundamental problem with EPA’s approach, which PEER has repeatedly raised with the agency, is its failure to address the many PFAS with terminal end products which are PFOA and PFOS. By ignoring PFAS that break down into PFOA and PFOS as terminal degradation products, EPA is negating what it is trying to achieve. This chemical transformation can occur during incineration, chlorination, ozonation, and metabolic breakdown.

In addition, EPA’s approach allows industry to substitute new PFAS variations faster than EPA can regulate them. Notably, no PFAS chemical has yet to be found safe.

“We do not have time for EPA to play an endless game of chemical-by-chemical whack-a-mole with PFAS; we need a comprehensive strategy now,” added PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with EPA. “The only viable way to prevent a multi-generational stain of PFAS contamination is to prevent its introduction in the first place, and that means a total ban on all but essential PFAS uses.”

PFAS filtration can cost tens of millions of dollars, and many municipalities cannot afford this expenditure. Local governments should not have to foot the bill for this PFAS remediation, especially given that the industry knew how toxic and persistent these chemicals were for decades.


See the new PFAS rule

Look at the case for regulating all PFAS as a class

Examine EPA failure to address precursors

Compare broader approach adopted by EU and Canada

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