EPA sets first-ever limits on ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water

The new regulations are expected to require billions of dollars in upgrades to remove the man-made chemicals from public drinking water across the country and will have major implications for Georgia
Mike Hackett, the director of the city of Rome’s water and sewer division, shows the Bruce Hamler Water Treatment Facility in Rome on Tuesday, August 23, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Mike Hackett, the director of the city of Rome’s water and sewer division, shows the Bruce Hamler Water Treatment Facility in Rome on Tuesday, August 23, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The U.S. government unveiled the first-ever legal limits on toxic “forever chemicals” in drinking water Wednesday, a long-awaited step to crack down on the manmade compounds, which have been linked to cancers and have been found in the water supplies of hundreds of cities, including some in Georgia.

As the new standards phase in, water systems around the country will need to ensure that concentrations of some of the chemicals in drinking water they provide are near zero. And removing enough of the persistent toxins to get there could force costly upgrades at many water systems, with the total tab nationwide expected to run into the billions of dollars.

The final regulations on forever chemicals — also known as PFAS, the acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — were announced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Chemical-makers including DuPont and companies spun out of the chemical giant and others like 3M have agreed to pay billions to settle litigation filed by local governments related to contamination, but those funds are a proverbial drop in the bucket to the likely cost of eliminating the toxins.

On Wednesday, the agency said it is also making available an additional $1 billion from 2021′s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help public water systems and private well owners address PFAS. The funding is part of a $9 billion package included in the legislation to clean-up PFAS, the largest-ever federal investment in tackling the contaminants.

In a statement, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said addressing PFAS pollution is a top priority of President Joe Biden’s administration.

“Drinking water contaminated with PFAS has plagued communities across this country for too long,” Regan said in a statement. “Today, I am proud to finalize this critical piece of our (PFAS Strategic) Roadmap, and in doing so, save thousands of lives and help ensure our children grow up healthier.”

There are no federal limits on production of PFAS, which have been used for decades in numerous consumer and industrial products, from nonstick pans to firefighting foam. A handful of states have recently passed their own restrictions on adding PFAS to certain products, but Georgia has not. Earlier this year, the FDA announced PFAS was no longer being sold by manufacturers for food packaging, part of a “voluntary market phase-out.”

A growing body of evidence has tied exposure to even minuscule concentrations of PFAS to a host of serious health conditions: From fertility problems and increased risk of prostate, kidney and testicular cancer in adults, to developmental delays and depressed vaccine response in children. The EPA says the new rules will reduce PFAS exposure for approximately 100 million people, while preventing thousands of deaths and cases of serious illness.

Plant manager Ben Teal poses for a portrait at the Terry R. Hicks Water Production Plant in Jonesboro on Wednesday, September 6, 2023. Clayton County's water system is among those that found levels of PFAS above what the federal government and experts say is safe. It is preparing to spend millions of dollars to upgrade its facilities. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Some companies that make PFAS have stopped producing certain types of the chemicals, including some covered by the new drinking water standards. Still, the notoriously persistent chemicals don’t break down in nature, and can be present at dangerous levels in water and soil even decades after they were phased out. Some of the newer compounds developed as replacements carry similar risks, public health advocates say.

The regulations apply to only six of the estimated 15,000 PFAS in existence. They include perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), two of the most-studied “forever chemicals,” as well as “GenX Chemicals,” which were developed as a replacement. Other chemicals, perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS), and perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS) are also covered by the rules.

Public water systems will have the next three years to test for the chemicals and must implement solutions to reduce concentrations in finished drinking water within five years.

In Georgia, testing is already underway as part of the EPA requirements. So far, results reported to the EPA and in earlier testing conducted by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division show at least a dozen water systems in the state may need upgrades to meet the new standards. Those include Clayton County, Augusta, Columbus and several cities in Northwest Georgia, where PFAS chemicals were used for years by flooring manufacturers.

Some cities, like Rome, which had filed lawsuits against some of the largest PFAS manufacturers and secured roughly $279 million in settlements to address contamination in its water, already have plans in place to build advanced water treatment facilities.

Clayton is facing about $450 million in upgrades, about half of which is for PFAS removal. Clayton will defray some costs through federal grants and loans, and by opting into class action settlements with some PFAS makers.

Clayton Water Authority CEO H. Bernard Franks said in a statement that he fully expects the system to meet the new requirements within five years.

“My family and I are lifelong residents of Clayton County,” he said. “Our community’s public health continues to be our number one priority.”

The city of Atlanta did not detect PFAS chemicals during testing done between 2021 and 2023 as part of a state monitoring program. More recent monitoring required by the EPA showed several unregulated contaminants in Atlanta’s drinking water, including PFAS. It’s unclear what the new rule means for the city.

The city’s water department sent a statement after publication of this article saying the city is “fully prepared to make any necessary upgrades” to meet the new criteria.

The new rules were praised by many environmental groups.

Ken Cook, president of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, said the rules will finally give tens of millions of Americans the protection they should have had decades ago.”

Pam Burnett, executive director of the Georgia Association of Water Professionals, said her organization has not taken a position for or against the EPA rule. She said members were adamant that the cost of compliance should be the responsibility of the industries that produce the contaminants.

“Even though the utilities haven’t generated this hazardous waste, they’re having to deal with it,” Burnett said. “Please don’t put the cost on the back of the water systems and the public when the waste has been generated by these companies that knew what they were doing and benefitted from it.”

Burnett said water systems have options that work well for removing the chemicals, but upgrades are expensive and many systems don’t know what to do with the PFAS waste once it has been removed because it can’t be disposed of in the normal ways.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for EPD said that agency would be responsible under federal law for implementing the new standards. EPD pointed to an interactive map with test results on its website.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents some companies that manufacture and use PFAS, criticized the EPA’s “overly conservative approach.”

“We strongly support the establishment of a science-based drinking water standard, but this rushed, unscientific approach is unacceptable when it comes to an issue as important as access to safe drinking water,” the group said.

New drinking water standards for PFAS

Here are the new limits the EPA announced Wednesday for certain “forever chemicals” in drinking water.

  • PFOS and PFOA: Concentrations limited to 4.0 parts per trillion. That’s around the lowest level that testing can detect.
  • PFNA, PFHxS, and “GenX Chemicals”: Concentrations limited to 10 parts per trillion.
  • The new rules also set limits on concentrations of any combination of PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and “GenX Chemicals” in drinking water.