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A New Rule for an Old Chemical: The EPA Moves to Limit PFAS in Drinking Water. Will it Do Enough to Decontaminate Polluted Rivers?

How often do you make connections between your clothing and your drinking water? When it comes to PFAS, it turns out there is a connection. Chances are that your waterproof clothing is coated with a PFAS chemical, the class of toxic chemicals that has leached into our rivers and other water sources, threatening public health, contaminating drinking water, and curtailing fishing and recreational uses. 

The EPA’s Latest Action on PFAS

On April 10, 2024, after decades of study with little regulation on PFAS, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drew a proverbial line in the sand with its new rule to limit these toxic pollutants in drinking water. Clean water advocates celebrated the stronger rule as it’s the manifestation of many years of work on eliminating the threat of PFAS. The rule, which is aimed at public drinking water suppliers, sets maximum contaminant levels for the presence of five PFAS chemicals in drinking water and also establishes hazard levels for mixtures of certain PFAS.

What Are PFAS and Why Are They in Our Water?

If you’re wondering what, exactly, “PFAS” means, you’re not alone. That short acronym sounds like it corresponds to a single chemical. But the term “PFAS” actually refers to a family of thousands of chemicals, grouped as Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances. First discovered in the late 1930s, these chemicals have many useful properties, including water repellency, soil repellency, thermal stability, and friction reduction. All of that functionality led to a love affair between PFAS and our manufacturing sector which, by the 1950s, was using them in everything from stain resistant coatings to fire fighting foam. 

Alas, the PFAS family is a toxic family. In the 1970s we began to understand the health effects of these chemicals, and by the 2000s we realized how widespread these substances are in the environment. We now know that PFAS can cause a host of bad (even fatal) health effects including birth defects, cancer, high cholesterol, immunological disorders, and low birth weights. Nationwide, half of our drinking water is contaminated with PFAS. In Massachusetts, a state with some of the strictest drinking water regulations on PFAS, a Sierra Club study found that at least 70% of our communities have detectable levels of PFAS in their ground and surface water. 

The schematic below shows how these chemicals enter our rivers, other bodies of water, and drinking water wells. Manufacturing is the most prominent source, but wastewater treatment can also contribute PFAS to the environment. What’s most troubling is that these chemicals do not break down easily in the environment, leading to their ominous nickname,“forever chemicals.” 

A diagram of the way PFAS enter our waterways
Source: National Institutes of Health, NIH Medline Plus Magazine

One Small Step in a Long Road to Freedom from PFAS

Over the decades since the deleterious public health effects of PFAS were first discovered, the EPA has wrestled with chemical manufacturers while using its authority to slowly address the problem. The agency’s recent regulatory breakthrough couples the policy of its PFAS Strategic Roadmap with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to direct and fund the water treatment upgrades needed in order to provide cleaner drinking water. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will invest over $6 billion to help with this buildout, but spread across the nation, that sum won’t cover all the upgrades needed, especially since most local governments are already grappling with unmanageable infrastructure costs. Likewise, communities in Massachusetts are struggling to make the investments necessary to get PFAS out of drinking water, and a bill is pending in the state legislature to help fund these projects. 

 “Forever chemicals” can take hundreds, even thousands, of years to break down in the environment. Truly reducing the threat of PFAS requires banning the manufacture and/or sale of products with PFAS chemicals so they don’t have the chance to contaminate our waters in the first place. Maine, the European Union, California, New York, and Washington state have placed some restrictions on PFAS use and production, most often for cosmetics and textiles. These bans, although limited, could begin to erode manufacturers’ incentives to continue selling PFAS. 

It remains to be seen whether the latest actions from the EPA will result in substantial reductions of PFAS in our water. Whether it does or not, the limitations of the new rule render it unlikely to have a catalytic effect on the use and manufacturing of these chemicals. In short, these pollutants are so pervasive that simply removing some of them from some drinking water amounts to a very short step in a very long journey. 

At the Mass Rivers Alliance, our mission is to protect the health of the Commonwealth’s rivers and streams. While we’re pleased that the EPA took bold action on PFAS, we will continue to work with our national partners to eliminate the manufacturing and use of PFAS. Our rivers, our water, and our health will remain at risk until that action is taken. To stay up to date on the latest water news from across the state, sign up for our newsletter!




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