AWWA’s Mehan testifies on PFAS in drinking water

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) testified recently before the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Environment and Climate Change about approaches to addressing PFAS in drinking water.

Mehan

Tracy Mehan, executive director of government affairs, spoke on behalf of AWWA, the non-profit organization whose 51,000 members represent water professionals throughout North America.

“EPA released its PFAS Action Plan earlier this year,” said Mehan, a former state and federal regulator. “While we saw some positive steps promised in that plan, we believe authorities exist for federal entities to do even more.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals. PFAS have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the globe, including in the United States since the 1940s. PFOA and PFOS have been the most extensively produced and studied of these chemicals. Both chemicals are very persistent in the environment and in the human body – meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects.

According to EPA, PFAS can be found in drinking water, typically localized and associated with a specific facility (e.g., manufacturer, landfill, wastewater treatment plant, firefighter training facility).

Mehan’s testimony emphasized that existing authorities could be better utilized to protect against PFAS contamination. The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) gives EPA data-gathering authority regarding the testing and restriction of chemicals, which could be used to garner more information from the manufacturing sector about the development of PFAS, where the chemicals were produced and in what quantities.

RELATED: EPA announces first-ever comprehensive PFAS action plan

In addition to TSCA, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) helps protect public drinking water by empowering EPA to manage naturally-occurring and man-made risks to drinking water. Utilizing these existing authorities, EPA should:

  • Provide a report in one year describing the location of PFAS production, import, processing and use in the United States for individual PFAS compounds based on data collected through TSCA. This report should be updated every two years;
  • Describe actions taken or planned under TSCA to restrict PFAS production, use and import and communicate the associated risks with the public;
  • Describe actions taken by other federal agencies regarding PFAS, specifically the departments of Defense and Health and Human Services; and
  • Provide Congress with an annual report on statutory and non-statutory barriers encountered in collecting and distributing PFAS information to inform risk management decisions by EPA, states and local risk managers.

Mehan’s testimony also included the importance of additional research before determining maximum contaminant levels for PFAS.

Currently the lack of health effects research stemming from PFAS has delayed regulatory determinations under SDWA, which stipulate that the substance, “is known to occur or there is a substantial likelihood that the contaminant will occur in public water systems with a frequency and at levels of public health concern; and in the sole judgment of the Administrator, regulation of such contaminants presents a meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction for persons served by public water systems.”

Mehan cited his three-year tenure with EPA (2001-2003) when he discussed the need for proper funding to conduct the necessary research in the following areas:

  • Health effects data on which PFAS compounds pose a human health risk (and there are more than 3,000 PFAS compounds);
  • Analytical methods to quantify levels of PFAS compounds in environmental samples (natural waters, wastewaters, soil, finished water); and
  • Technologies to cost-effectively remove problematic PFAS compounds from drinking water and wastewaters to levels that do not pose public health concerns.

Nearly 20 states have formal policy statements on PFAS management in drinking water and even more have policies aimed at controlling the release of PFAS from contaminated sites. New Jersey has a maximum contaminant level in place and other states have similar MCLs for PFAS in development. AWWA stresses the importance of allowing EPA to conduct the appropriate research outlined above using the powers afforded it in TSCA and SDWA to best inform the regulatory process.

“Our members are concerned about states setting a range of maximum contaminant levels for PFAS compounds using a range of different analytical techniques, sometimes without adequate cost-benefit analysis,” said Mehan.

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