New administration signals changes for toxic “forever chemicals” in drinking water

With a new presidential administration, change is coming for certain hazardous chemicals found in drinking water.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a group of more than 4,700 human-made, potentially carcinogenic “forever chemicals” that don’t naturally break down and can accumulate and persist in the environment and the bodies of living creatures.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), animal studies have shown that two of the most well-known types of PFAS, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), can cause reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney and immunological effects, as well as tumors.

PFAS have uniquely useful properties: They have one of the strongest known chemical bonds, are highly heat resistant, and repel both water and oil. As a result, they’ve been used in everything from nonstick pans to firefighting foam for the past 80 years. Over that time, the chemicals have made their way into drinking water.

A 2016 study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that the drinking water of six million U.S. residents has confirmed PFAS levels higher than EPA’s recommended maximum amount. A coauthor of that study recently found that more than 200 million people in the U.S. could have PFAS in their drinking water.

PFAS in the public eye

In recent years, PFAS have become a more mainstream topic of conversation; an early PFAS contamination case was even dramatized in the 2019 legal thriller film “Dark Waters,” starring Mark Ruffalo.

As public consciousness of PFAS has grown, so has work towards reducing, monitoring and removing them.

In December 2019, Congress included some PFAS-related provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 2020 fiscal year. A year later, EPA released NDAA-required interim guidance about the current understanding of the techniques and treatments for destroying and disposing of PFAS and PFAS-containing material.

As the Biden-Harris administration begins, action on PFAS may soon speed up. In President Joe Biden’s campaign plan for environmental justice and equitable economic opportunity, he pledged to address PFAS as part of an effort to “tackle water pollution in a science-based manner.”

Limits and legislation

One way the Biden-Harris administration could address PFAS contamination is to set enforceable limits for PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

EPA has already begun this process for PFOA and PFOS: In February 2020, EPA proposed preliminary regulatory determinations for the two chemicals. If finalized, those regulatory determinations could result in a National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR), which could establish a legally enforceable maximum contaminant level (MCL), rather than just a recommended maximum. According to the National Law Review, the Biden-Harris administration’s EPA could accelerate the process, with the possibility of NPDWR and MCL proposals by the end of the year.

The Biden-Harris administration has also signaled in the environmental justice plan that PFAS could be designated as a hazardous substance under the Superfund law. This could be done with the PFAS Action Act, which passed the House of Representatives in 2020. Bill sponsor Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan said in a panel talk in November 2020 that she intends to reintroduce the bill in 2021. Hazardous substance designation under the Superfund law would allow EPA to hold polluters responsible and require most PFAS-contaminated sites to be cleaned up.

Any upcoming PFAS-related action by EPA will be overseen by the agency’s administrator. Michael Regan, the head of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ), has been nominated by Biden to fill this role. Regan has experience with PFAS; under his leadership, the NCDEQ ordered action by Chemours, a chemical company, to prevent PFAS pollution into North Carolina’s Cape Fear River.

Looking ahead

While regulatory actions are in the works, research on PFAS toxicity and potential replacements continues.

EPA is assessing the hazards of five additional types of PFAS, which could lead to broader limits on PFAS down the line. Replacements are also in the works: Some international airports, where PFAS-containing firefighting foam has traditionally been used, have successfully shifted to PFAS-free firefighting foam. No PFAS-free firefighting foams have yet met the U.S. Department of Defense’s requirements, but replacement research is ongoing.

Finding, removing and destroying PFAS are also top research priorities. Rice University researchers were recently surprised to find that the catalyst boron nitride can destroy PFOA. At Curtin University in Australia, researchers are developing chemical sensors to immediately test water for PFAS contamination on-site.

In recent years, more research has led to more regulatory action. Many states have instituted state-level PFAS-related treatment and monitoring rules and held polluters accountable. On the federal level, the outgoing 116th U.S. Congress introduced 84 pieces of legislation related to PFAS, more than four times what was introduced over the preceding 10 years. Whether or not regulatory action happens quickly, PFAS are likely to remain top-of-mind.

Authors

As a communications specialist for the Texas Water Resources Institute, Chantal Cough-Schulze works with the institute’s communications team writing articles for and editing txH2O and Conservation Matters, developing TWRI multimedia materials and editing reports and education and outreach materials. She also serves as the managing editor for the Texas Water Journal.

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