Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2025
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to regulate drinking water contaminants and require monitoring of public water systems. On March 14, 2023, the EPA announced the proposed National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) for a new federal standard to regulate PFAS in drinking water. PFAS are synthetic chemicals that can repel oil, water, and stains, which makes them useful for many products and industries. While there are currently state laws regulating PFAS in drinking water, the federal rule would be a huge step towards reducing exposure to these “forever chemicals” and preventing harm to public health.
The EPA expects that if the rule is fully implemented, it will prevent thousands of deaths caused by these “forever chemicals” as well as reducing tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses. Many states across the nation have implemented regulations aimed at reducing or eliminating the use of PFAS, setting testing and reporting limits, and directing and financing remediation. The proposed federal regulation not only standardizes these testing and reporting limits, but it allots federal funding to assist states with managing the regulation of PFAS.
What are these “forever chemicals”?
The regulation would create and monitor legally enforceable levels for six PFAS that are common in drinking water, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (HFPO-DA, commonly known as GenX Chemicals), perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS), and perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS).
PFAS have been used since the 1940’s in a variety of consumer and industrial goods. The chemicals are found inside products that are used everyday, including clothing, food packaging, cosmetics, and even toilet paper. Most corporations stopped using PFAS voluntarily in the mid-2000’s, but they have stayed in the environment due to their lack of breakdown and ability to accumulate over time.
The PFAS are considered “forever chemicals” because they remain both in the environment and in the human body without breaking down and can accumulate over time. The chemicals are often found in water, air, and soil near sites where they are manufactured, used, or discarded and left without proper disposal. Communities across the United States live in areas where there are especially high levels of PFAS in their drinking water, due mostly to a nearby industrial or military facility.
Not only do the chemicals last forever, they can have extremely harmful effects on human health. Studies have linked PFAS exposure to effects on the liver, immune system, cardiovascular system, and human development. In children, PFAS are linked to causing cancer, asthma, liver disease, thyroid disease, and more. PFAS are also linked to decreased fertility, lower birth weights, newborn deaths, birth defects, and delayed development. Given the harmful health effects that PFAS can cause, it is even more worrying that 95% of people tested since 1999 have PFAS in their bodies.
How will “forever chemicals” be monitored under the new rule?
Under the new regulation, the PFAS would be classified with other regulated chemicals such as lead, arsenic, and nitrate. The EPA would cap the levels of PFOS and PFOAs at 4 parts per trillion, which is the lowest possible amount at which they can be measured on a reliable level. The EPA would regulate the four other PFAS as a mixture, which allows for the testing of each individual PFAS but acknowledges the risk that the combination of these “forever chemicals” could have.
The proposed rule would preempt previous state levels established in their drinking water guidelines. When the regulation goes into effect, states will be required to set their standards to at least the levels set out in the EPA guidelines. The federal government, through the EPA, also plans to help through various funding mechanisms to assist states with their management and monitoring programs for PFAS.
The regulation would require public water systems to monitor the levels of PFAS in drinking water, notify the public of the levels, and make efforts to reduce the amount of PFAS if they are above the appropriate levels. The EPA’s plan is for public water systems to use the information to raise awareness by taking steps to inform customers about the levels of PFAS in their drinking water. The public water systems can then undertake additional testing to determine the source of contamination, address the contamination problem, and take steps to limit exposure.
The new regulation is necessary to mitigate the negative impacts of these persistent and potentially harmful chemicals on both human and environmental health. Hopefully, the regulation will work to protect public health, safeguard the environment, and promote the development of safer alternatives.