The U.S. government on Tuesday proposed the first national standards for drinking water, requiring the removal of some “forever chemicals” that are known to cause adverse health effects in humans, including cancer and obesity.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) intends to regulate at least six per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS or “forever chemicals,” in drinking water.
This would be one of the first major reforms to the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act, with environmental groups welcoming the move after years of warning about the serious health consequences of PFAS.
Here’s a quick rundown of what exactly these chemicals are and why the EPA ruling will impact the health of millions in the U.S.
What are “forever chemicals?”
PFAS are a family of synthetical chemicals that have fluorine introduced into their molecules, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The carbon-fluorine bond created during synthesis is one of the strongest found in nature, meaning these chemicals do not decompose easily in the environment. Hence the name “forever chemicals”
Where are these chemicals found?
One of PFAS’ key properties is their ability to repel water and oil. They have been commonly used since the 1940s and are found in hundreds of household items, including water-repellent clothes, furniture, nonstick pans, paints, cosmetics, cleaning products, food packaging, and firefighting foams.
The main concern is that these products contaminate water sources with PFAS after being thrown away. One 2007 study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimated that PFAS could be found in 98% of the country’s population.
How dangerous are they?
According to the EPA, PFAS primarily settle in the blood, kidneys, and liver, and studies have shown that long-term exposure can lead to health problems like cancer, a suppressed immune system, decreased fertility, developmental problems, interference with hormone production, and obesity.
Researchers for years have known about the potential health risks PFAS pose, but an EPA notice from last year warned that the chemicals are more dangerous than previously thought even in smaller concentrations.
What are the new regulations?
The new rule requires water systems to monitor for six specific PFAS, make the levels available to the public, and work to reduce them if they go above standard.
Two chemicals, PFAO and PFOS, will be required to be kept under 4 parts per trillion (ppt). The other four chemicals, PENA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX, are categorized as one and have a limit for a mix of them.
While some of these chemicals have already been phased out from household goods, the risk of contaminating water supplies remains.
The guidelines are much more strict than a previous 2016 EPA recommendation of keeping PFAS concentrations at no more than 70 ppt in drinking water.
The proposal is now open for public comment before the specifics are implemented and finalized.
The View From Denmark
Denmark became the first country in the world to ban all PFAS from food packaging material, with the measures going into effect in 2020. Researchers had been growing increasingly concerned with the concentration of the chemicals they were finding in foods, such as organic eggs, according to the Guardian.
The View From the United Kingdom
Environmental activists have warned that the U.K. is particularly vulnerable to PFAS exposure with few regulations to limit the production of the chemicals.
A recent study found that wild fish in England have such high levels of PFAS that even eating these fish twice a year would exceed the EU’s amount deemed safe for humans.