EPA announces new drinking water health advisories for PFAS

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released four drinking water health advisories for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the latest action under President Joe Biden’s action plan to deliver clean water and EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap.

The agency also announced that it is inviting states and territories to apply for $1 billion – the first of $5 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law grant funding – to address PFAS and other emerging contaminants in drinking water, specifically in small or disadvantaged communities.

EPA says these actions build on the agency’s progress to safeguard communities from PFAS pollution and scientifically inform upcoming efforts, including EPA’s forthcoming proposed National Primary Drinking Water Regulation for PFOA and PFOS, which EPA will release in the fall of 2022.

“People on the front-lines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long. That’s why EPA is taking aggressive action as part of a whole-of-government approach to prevent these chemicals from entering the environment and to help protect concerned families from this pervasive challenge,” said Regan. “Thanks to President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we are also investing $1 billion to reduce PFAS and other emerging contaminants in drinking water.”

However, the interim advisories are significantly lower than the existing health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS. The final lifetime health advisory levels for GenX and PFBS are 10 parts per trillion (ppt) and 2,000 ppt, respectively. The interim lifetime health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS are 4 parts per quadrillion (ppq or 0.004 ppt) and 20 ppq (or 0.02 ppt), respectively. Currently, these health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS are below the analytical levels of detection and quantification, according to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies said the new advisories fall below current laboratory detection requirements, adding that it “questions how water utilities can assure customers their drinking water is safe, even when results indicate PFAS is undetectable.”

In a recent statement, AWWA also added: “The PFOA and PFOS advisory levels are extremely low and do not reflect the draft recommendations of EPA’s own expert Science Advisory Board review. The health advisory levels at parts per quadrillion, undetectable by modern laboratory methods.

“AWWA is committed to both the protection of public health and decision-making based on the best available science. As a community of water professionals, we share EPA’s desire to keep harmful levels of PFAS out of the nation’s drinking water. We support setting national drinking water standards for PFAS that protect all consumers, including the most sensitive populations. We also stand for strong source water protection to prevent PFAS contamination and increased investment in PFAS research.

“At the national level, EPA is already in the process of setting maximum contaminant levels for PFAS within the scientifically rigorous framework of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). A proposal is expected in the fall. Through the SDWA regulatory process, many utilities are sampling for PFOA, PFOS and other PFAS to better understand where they occur and at what levels. They are sharing that information with their communities. It’s important that EPA complete this rulemaking process so that states, utilities, and consumers have a clear and consistent path forward for managing harmful levels of PFAS in drinking water.”

$1 Billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Funding

As part of a government-wide effort to confront PFAS pollution, EPA is making available $1 billion in grant funding through Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help communities that are on the frontlines of PFAS contamination, the first of $5 billion through the Law that can be used to reduce PFAS in drinking water in communities facing disproportionate impacts. These funds can be used in small or disadvantaged communities to address emerging contaminants like PFAS in drinking water through actions such as technical assistance, water quality testing, contractor training, and installation of centralized treatment technologies and systems.

EPA will be reaching out to states and territories with information on how to submit their letter of intent to participate in this new grant program. EPA will also consult with Tribes and Alaskan Native Villages regarding the Tribal set-aside for this grant program. This funding complements $3.4 billion in funding that is going through the Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs) and $3.2 billion through the Clean Water SRFs that can also be used to address PFAS in water this year.

Lifetime Drinking Water Health Advisories for Four PFAS

The agency is releasing PFAS health advisories in light of newly available science and in accordance with EPA’s responsibility to protect public health. These advisories indicate the level of drinking water contamination below which adverse health effects are not expected to occur. Health advisories provide technical information that federal, state, and local officials can use to inform the development of monitoring plans, investments in treatment solutions, and future policies to protect the public from PFAS exposure.

EPA’s lifetime health advisories identify levels to protect all people, including sensitive populations and life stages, from adverse health effects resulting from a lifetime of exposure to these PFAS in drinking water. EPA’s lifetime health advisories also take into account other potential sources of exposure to these PFAS beyond drinking water (for example, food, air, consumer products, etc.), which provides an additional layer of protection.   

EPA is issuing interim, updated drinking water health advisories for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) that replace those EPA issued in 2016. The updated advisory levels, which are based on new science and consider lifetime exposure, indicate that some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero and below EPA’s ability to detect at this time. The lower the level of PFOA and PFOS, the lower the risk to public health. EPA recommends states, Tribes, territories, and drinking water utilities that detect PFOA and PFOS take steps to reduce exposure. Most uses of PFOA and PFOS were voluntarily phased out by U.S. manufacturers, although there are a limited number of ongoing uses, and these chemicals remain in the environment due to their lack of degradation.

For the first time, EPA is issuing final health advisories for perfluorobutane sulfonic acid and its potassium salt (PFBS) and for hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO) dimer acid and its ammonium salt (“GenX” chemicals). In chemical and product manufacturing, GenX chemicals are considered a replacement for PFOA, and PFBS is considered a replacement for PFOSThe GenX chemicals and PFBS health advisory levels are well above the level of detection, based on risk analyses in recent scientific studies. 

The agency’s new health advisories provide technical information that federal, state, and local agencies can use to inform actions to address PFAS in drinking water, including water quality monitoring, optimization of existing technologies that reduce PFAS, and strategies to reduce exposure to these substances. EPA encourages states, Tribes, territories, drinking water utilities, and community leaders that find PFAS in their drinking water to take steps to inform residents, undertake additional monitoring to assess the level, scope, and source of contamination, and examine steps to reduce exposure. Individuals concerned about levels of PFAS found in their drinking water should consider actions that may reduce exposure, including installing a home or point of use filter.

Next Steps

EPA is moving forward with proposing a PFAS National Drinking Water Regulation in fall 2022. As EPA develops this proposed rule, the agency is also evaluating additional PFAS beyond PFOA and PFOS and considering actions to address groups of PFAS. The interim health advisories will provide guidance to states, Tribes, and water systems for the period prior to the regulation going into effect. 

The EPA’s work to identify and confront the risks that PFAS pose to human health and the environment is a key component in the Biden-Harris Administration whole-of-government approach to confronting these emerging contaminants. This strategy includes steps by the Food and Drug Administration to increase testing for PFAS in food and packaging, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help dairy farmers address contamination of livestock, and by the Department of Defense to clean-up contaminated military installations and the elimination of unnecessary PFAS uses. 

To receive grant funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, states and territories should submit a letter of intent by Aug. 15, 2022.

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