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April 10, 2024

EPA sets nation’s first enforceable limits for PFAS chemicals in drinking water

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED This PFAS treatment system at an Aquarion plant in New Hampshire is similar to what the company will install in Connecticut.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday is set to announce its long-awaited standards for a contaminant known as PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” which have been linked to cancer, damage to the liver and heart, and immune and developmental problems in infants and children.

The EPA has set enforceable maximum contaminant levels at 4 parts per trillion (ppt) for two of the most common types of PFAS, called PFOA and PFOS. Although no level of PFAS exposure is safe, the EPA said the new limits mark “the lowest levels that are feasible for effective implementation.”

The EPA has set a non-enforceable, health-based goal of zero. 

“This reflects the latest science showing that there is no level of exposure to these contaminants without risk of health impacts, including certain cancers,” the EPA said.

For other types of PFAS, including GenX chemicals, which have been used as a replacement for PFOA, the EPA set a limit of 10 ppt. 

Connecticut’s two major water utilities, Aquarion and Connecticut Water Co., have begun testing and have implemented PFAS-reduction measures in some locations.

Donald Morrissey is the president of Bridgeport-based Aquarion Water Co.

The EPA said that between 6% and 10% of the 66,000 public drinking water systems in the United States will be required to take action under the new standards. 

Public water systems will have three years to complete monitoring for PFAS and must inform the public of PFAS levels measured, based on the new requirements. 

If PFAS levels exceed the standards, water systems must implement solutions to meet the limits within five years.

The new drinking water standards for PFAS – the first ever in the United States – will reduce exposure to about 100 million people and help prevent tens of thousands of serious illnesses, according to EPA officials.

PFAS, which are resistant to biodegradation, have been used for more than a half-century in the production of consumer products, including nonstick cookware and personal care products. 

Manufacturing companies such as Kimberly-Clark, which has a plant in New Milford, have been blamed for allowing PFAS to pollute drinking water and are the target of numerous class-action lawsuits, including in Connecticut.

Attorney General William Tong also has filed suits against several companies, including DuPont, for allegedly covering up the dangers associated with the chemicals. 

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization, said the federal government discovered the magnitude and ubiquity of PFAS after obtaining an internal document from DuPont in 2004 that showed the chemical company found Teflon in the umbilical cord blood of one of its workers in 1981.

“The company never told the government, it never told America, and these chemicals have no business in our babies,” Cook said during an EPA press conference Tuesday.

He said the DuPont revelation inspired rigorous testing.

“We've tested water, consumer products and people, and found PFAS everywhere for 24 years,” Cook said. “But the one study we conducted that locked us in for the long haul was our finding in 2004: that PFAS contaminated the umbilical cord blood of all 10 American babies we tested.”

Cook said the new regulations will help protect people “at long last from the scourge.”

Setting enforcement limits and reducing exposure to PFAS have been hallmarks of the Biden-Harris administration, senior officials said during the press conference.

The administration has allocated $21 billion to improve drinking water across the U.S., including some targeted specifically at reducing PFAS contamination, through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

There are several technologies available to remove PFAS from drinking water, including granular activated carbon, reverse osmosis and ion exchange, according to the EPA.

The EPA’s regulations give drinking water suppliers the flexibility to determine the best solution for their systems.

The EPA said it will work with state regulators and local officials to implement the rules.

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