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Feds Formally Limit ‘Forever Chemicals’

Thu, 04/18/2024 - 10:58

New water regs tougher than New York State’s

Durell Godfrey

On April 10, the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a final determination on limits for “forever chemicals” in drinking water sources, along with a three-to-five-year timeline by which testing and remediation are to occur and about $1 billion in funding to support states, cities, and other municipalities in carrying out that testing and remediation.

These chemicals, including perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly called PFAS, are harmful to humans and wildlife, and show up in drinking water when materials such as firefighting foam and manufacturing chemicals make their way into the environment. When they do, PFAS are difficult and stubborn to remove — hence their “forever chemicals” nickname.

Now, the “maximum contaminant levels” for six forms of PFAS in drinking water range from 1 to 10 parts per trillion. For PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate), which in 2017 were detected in private water wells in certain parts of Wainscott in excess of the E.P.A.’s acceptable levels for lifetime exposure, the limit is 4 parts per trillion. East Hampton Town has since taken action to make sure Wainscott residents have access to safe water sources.

“President Biden believes that everyone deserves access to clean, safe drinking water, and he is delivering on that promise,” Brenda Mallory, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said in a statement on April 10. “The first national drinking water standards for PFAS marks a significant step towards delivering on the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to advancing environmental justice, protecting communities, and securing clean water for people across the country.”

New York enacted its own regulations on PFAS in 2020, limiting PFOA and PFOS in drinking water to 10 parts per trillion. The E.P.A.’s final ruling is slightly tougher.

“We applaud [the E.P.A.] for taking this critical step to protect public health,” Charles Lefkowitz, chairman of the Suffolk County Water Authority, said in a statement. “Since the announcement of the proposed rule last year, the S.C.W.A. has been preparing for this and we are well on our way to meeting all regulatory requirements within the timeframe laid out by the E.P.A. . . . Our customers should rest assured that the water that comes out of their tap is treated for PFAS when it is detected and that the water that they drink is of the highest quality.”

The E.P.A. additionally established a three-year timeline for water utilities and municipalities to implement water quality monitoring and inform their customers and constituents of the results. If forever chemicals turn up in that testing, there will be a five-year period by which solutions for remediation must be implemented.

Jaymie Meliker, a professor of public health in the department of family, population, and preventive medicine at Stony Brook University, said yesterday that the E.P.A.’s ruling is tied to the current technology available for testing.

“Nothing will ever be zero, because as our ability to measure things improves, you’re always going to detect more,” he said. “But we’re talking guidelines in the parts per trillion. . . . These are one-thousand-fold smaller concentrations that we’re talking about. Fifty years ago, we weren’t even able to measure in the parts per billion level, we were measuring in parts per million. There will always be something that is detected over time — forever is because it doesn’t break down.”

Mr. Meliker said the E.P.A. regulations are also about “trying to fix the problem after the fact.”

“To me, the bigger question is, how did we get into this mess in the first place? Why are we in it, and why can’t we get out of it and stop this from happening?” he said. “It happened with DDT; it happened with brominated flame retardants that we were applying to furniture and mattresses. We don’t require industry to test their chemicals for safety prior to release into the general population. I’m not saying that’s the wrong choice, but I’m saying it needs to be a more obvious discussion with the general public. . . . They assume everything that comes out on the market is safe, but it’s hardly tested at all. People really don’t know that. To me, that’s where the wider discussion needs to be."

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