Per- and polyfluoroakyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS, are everywhere.
They are in our water, air, soil, products and, not surprisingly, they’re in us. PFAS are a bond between carbon and fluorine, the strongest bond in organic chemistry, making them extremely difficult to break down. As we get older, the influence PFAS has upon us grows stronger and stronger.
Studies have found that around 95% of the population show traces of PFAS in their blood and urine.
Since this alarming discovery, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released new lifetime health advisories for four types of PFAS, particularly those which have a high concentration in drinking water.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has defined a health advisory as something that “identifies an immediate threat to human health from a hazardous substance.” Even though the EPA has sentenced PFAS with such an advisory, it is not enforceable and non-regulatory. However, advisories can be used to advise legislators on the future regulations for the development of drinking water infrastructure.
The updated lifetime health advisories specifically target PFOA, PFOS, PFBS and GenX chemicals. These compounds are resistant to deterioration, hold non-stick qualities, and are resistant to both high and low temperatures. They can be found in a multitude of commercial properties.
Due to the chance of future litigation, many manufacturers have ceased using some of the above PFAS, but of course there are still ongoing uses.
The EPA’s interim lifetime health advisories, superseding those made in 2016, illustrate that the maximum safety levels of PFOA and PFOS causing harmful health effects are now significantly lower than once believed. We now know that it takes lower levels of PFAS to cause problems like an increased risk of cancer, high cholesterol levels, and a decrease in infant vaccine response and infant birth weights.
Since the negative effects of the contaminations are so harmful, but still under review by the EPA Science Advisory Board, the agency believed it absolutely necessary to release these interim health advisories.
The EPA’s updated advisories as of June 2022 are a warning of the larger step towards harsher state and federal regulations needed pertaining to the use of PFAS. It may also show a path toward litigation against certain industries polluting the environment with PFAS, and a preview of how they may regulate these chemicals hereafter.
The EPA’s current assessment of peer-reviewed science has determined what they currently believe to be the safety threshold of PFAS in drinking water.
- PFOA: 0.004 parts per trillion
- PFOS: 0.02 ppt
- GenX: 10ppt
- PFBS: 2000 ppt
These levels are all drastically lower than what was believed in the advisories released in 2016.
The American Chemistry Council is contesting the new standards. It has petitioned the EPA saying that the new advisories have bypassed the review requirements established by the Safe Drinking Water Act. The council is comprised primarily of chemical company executives whose interests are not necessarily those of the general public.
The EPAs Approach to PFAS in Drinking water
The EPA has decided to take a lifecycle approach to dealing with PFAS in water. Since PFAS are still in use, even if manufacturing of such chemicals has ceased in the U.S., the pollution caused by PFAS cannot be dealt with solely in water treatment. The plan is to deal with PFAS pollution at the beginning and end of its lifecycle in our waters by placing restrictions on the industries that still emit PFAS into the air, soil, and water.
The PFAS roadmap laid out by the EPA plans to hold all polluters responsible for the remediation of water wells in ecosystems that have been contaminated. This means that the cost will not fall on taxpayers, who may have already paid the price for PFAS in other ways.
EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan has expressed that it is “close collaboration with tribes, states, localities, and stakeholders to enact solutions that follow science and stand the test of time.”