Late in 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a long-term project that aimed to come to grips with contamination by a class of chemicals called PFAS, for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. Sometimes termed “forever chemicals,” these compounds don’t naturally degrade at an appreciable rate, and they show up in everything from food packaging to drinking water. Lab and epidemiological studies have indicated that they carry potential health risks, and the EPA started a program to evaluate the latest research on them.
On Tuesday, the agency announced some of the first results of this effort and is issuing updated drinking-water health advisories on four of the chemicals, one of which tightens exposure risks by a factor of 10,000. In addition, the EPA announced that it is planning to spend a billion dollars of Infrastructure Bill funding in disadvantaged and small communities to help them monitor and reduce PFAS exposures.
Less is better
PFAS are hydrocarbons in which some of the hydrogen atoms have been replaced by fluorine. This makes them chemically inert, allowing them to stick around in the environment for a long time without breaking down—hence the term “forever chemicals.” Their stability and tendency to repel water makes them useful for a variety of industrial processes. Their users, however, haven’t always been careful about what happens to the chemicals during use. As a result, PFAS have contaminated both soil and drinking water, among other things.
Identifying if these chemicals pose human health risks has been challenging because they’re such a broad class of chemicals, and the ones in use have changed over time. But a growing body of scientific literature from both animal testing and epidemiological surveys has indicated that at least some of them are likely to impact human health. Part of the EPA’s PFAS program involved simply studying the scientific literature on these effects.
Tuesday saw the first results of that effort, with the EPA issuing new health advisories for four groups of PFAS exposure via drinking water. The EPA describes its health advisories as providing “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.” The advisories give an indication of the concentrations of chemicals for which health risks might be expected, allowing officials to plan how to limit exposure accordingly.
For two of the chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), the new advisories update ones issued back in 2016. The new standards are based on hundreds of studies that have been published in the intervening years; the studies have indicated 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. ” Unsurprisingly, that finding has resulted in an advisory that calls for dramatically lower exposure—two to four orders of magnitude lower.
Two other chemicals, perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS) and hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO) have been introduced as partial replacements for the ones listed above. The EPA is now issuing its first health advisory for these chemicals.
The reasoning behind all these levels is detailed in the technical fact sheet accompanying the announcement. In short, the EPA identified the lowest concentration of the chemical that poses a human health risk based on either animal or epidemiology studies. Using that concentration, it calculates lifetime exposure risk and, assuming 20 percent of that exposure comes from drinking water, determines the acceptable exposures via drinking water.
These steps come in advance of formal regulations, expected to be issued this fall, that limit exposure to these chemicals.
We’ll help you fix it
The EPA isn’t just interested in identifying the problem, however. The announcement comes with a call for communities to apply for grant money to help monitor or remediate PFAS contamination in drinking water. Overall, the Infrastructure Bill that has been a centerpiece of the Biden Administration’s domestic policy allocates $50 billion for the EPA’s water programs. Much of that money will go through the EPA’s normal funding mechanisms, but $5 billion has been allocated to the agency’s “Emerging Contaminant” program, with a billion to be spent annually over the next five years.
The first year’s allocation will be focused on PFAS and will be specifically allocated to communities that might not otherwise have the resources available to address PFAS contamination. Specifically, the money will go to communities meeting one of two sets of criteria.
The first category is communities that the EPA has determined do not have the capacity to incur enough debt to finance a project for PFAS monitoring or remediation. The communities must have a population of less than 10,000. The second category is a community that fits the criteria of “disadvantaged,” as determined by the state they’re part of.
Overall, the announcement is a bit like a progress report that lands partway between the EPA indicating that it is taking PFAS risks seriously and the formulation of formal rules limiting exposure to them. The additional funding enabled by the infrastructure law turned out to be conveniently timed to help communities prepare for the coming regulations.