Feds Announce Drinking Water Standards

Glass of tap water
Glass of tap water | Image by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Federal officials have announced the first-ever restrictions on polyfluoroalkyl substances in drinking water.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — known as PFAS — are often referred to as “forever chemicals.” They constitute a class of substances that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) associates with elevated risks of cancer, decreased fertility, and other conditions.

These chemicals are often produced in industrial settings, wastewater treatment plants, landfills, fire training sites, and more. A recent study found that these chemicals are also present in popular bandage brands, as The Dallas Express previously reported.

PFAS can enter drinking water supplies when products from these sources enter natural water sources such as groundwater, lakes, and rivers. Last June, DX reported that 3M, a U.S.-based manufacturing conglomerate, agreed to a $10.3 billion settlement due to allegations that its forever chemicals had contaminated drinking water in various localities throughout the country.

The White House announced on April 10 that the EPA has established the first drinking water standard for PFAS, recognizing “the first-ever national legally enforceable drinking water standard for PFAS, which will protect 100 million people from PFAS exposure, prevent tens of thousands of serious illnesses, and save lives,” per the statement.

“Today, the Biden-Harris Administration is also announcing an additional $1 billion through President Biden’s Investing in America agenda to help every state and territory fund PFAS detection and treatment systems to meet the new standard,” the statement continued.

Public water system managers are now tasked to monitor water sources for these chemicals and complete initial monitoring by 2027. Additionally, “water systems must also provide the public with information on the levels of these PFAS in their drinking water beginning in 2027,” per the EPA.

The EPA further noted that water systems must also have solutions in place to reduce PFAS levels if they exceed the standard by 2029.

“These actions will help tackle PFAS pollution that has devastated communities like Oakdale, outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, where decades of PFAS-containing waste dumped by a chemical plant has contaminated the community’s drinking water. In this area, cancer was found to be a far more likely cause of death in children than in neighboring areas,” the White House statement read.

Prospects for the new rule have been met with both praise and skepticism.

“Reducing PFAS in our drinking water is the most cost-effective way to reduce our exposure,” said Scott Faber, a food and water expert with the Environmental Working Group, according to The Associated Press. “It’s much more challenging to reduce other exposures such as PFAS in food or clothing or carpets.”

On the other hand, Mike McGill, president of WaterPIO, claimed that the new regulation will “throw public confidence in drinking water into chaos,” per AP.

And Joseph Hastings, who directs the joint public works department for Philadelphia’s Collegeville and Trappe boroughs, told AP that installing treatment systems to meet these regulations would cost millions of dollars, even in small towns with small populations.

This means, “You start what we call the death spiral of these utilities” because they cannot afford to meet the standards regulators are setting, as Josiah Cox previously told the publication. Cox started Central States Water Resources, a business that buys struggling small utilities.

Further, tightening regulations doesn’t always do much.

“Mostly what regulators have is moral appeal and they’ll wag their finger,” said Manny Teodoro, a University of Wisconsin public affairs professor whose research examines U.S. environmental policy, particularly with regard to utilities like water.

But when regulators do impose fines, it can be a double-edged sword, as some utility companies can’t pay them, the same problem that keeps many of them from meeting the regulations in the first place, as Cox described.

In other cases, as the AP reported, utility companies just neglect to pay the fines altogether.

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