On June 15, 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released new health advisories for drinking water relating to four select classes of per- and polyflouroalkyl substances (PFOA or PFOS) —also referred to as PFAS chemicals. Dubbed “forever chemicals,” and found in such common consumer products as shampoo, food wrappers, and non-stick cookware, PFAS chemicals have gained nationwide attention in recent years both for their extreme bio-persistence and their ubiquity in consumer and personal care products.
In a drastic departure from the agency’s 2016 advisory health limit of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS, the EPA now recommends limits approaching zero (0.004 and 0.02 for PFOA and PFOS, respectively) based on what it claims to be new medical and scientific research. In addition, the EPA went even further and issued health advisories for “GenX” chemicals and perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS) (10 ppt and 2,000 ppt, respectively), two additional PFAS chemicals designed to replace PFOA and PFOS, due to growing concern that PFAS chemicals cause adverse health effects. While today’s guidance acts as little more than a recommendation to local leaders, the EPA reports that it is on track to propose mandatory standards in the fall of 2022. Should the recommended health advisory levels be adopted by the still-pending peer review of the Scientific Advisory Board and processed through the executive rulemaking process, the failure of local water authorities to meet these standards will result in financial penalties.
Maintaining PFAS levels below those suggested in the EPA’s recent guidance will be incredibly difficult, and perhaps impossible, for local water authorities. PFAS have earned their designation as forever chemicals due to their inability to naturally degrade over time. This environmental resistance and water solubility of PFAS, coupled with approximately 80+ years of prevalent use in consumer and industrial products, has resulted in their almost ubiquitous presence in global waterways. The burden to finance the testing, construction, maintenance and operation of PFAS removal systems will fall squarely on local water utilities, which must now prepare to develop systems that can meet levels that fall below even the EPA’s ability to detect. Overburdened and underfunded municipalities faced with this dilemma will almost certainly seek to recover these costs from the manufacturers, producers and suppliers of PFAS chemicals and PFAS-containing products.