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EPA imposes first nationwide limit on use of “forever chemicals” in tap water

For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency has established national limits for six types of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances in drinking water. The substances, known as PFAS, are nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they barely degrade and are nearly impossible to destroy; they remain permanently in contaminated air, water, and soil. PFAS have been associated with a higher risk of certain cancers, heart disease, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, low birth weight, and reproductive issues, including decreased fertility. Most people in the U.S. have PFAS in their blood, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The EPA is making $1 billion available to states to implement testing and treatment procedures.

Eleven states already have regulatory standards in place, but this nationwide limit will force other states to adhere to the rules. “One hundred million people will be healthier and safer because of this action,”EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Tuesday, “Drinking water contaminated with PFAS has plagued communities across this country for too long.” The number of people that will benefit from these upgrades is substantial. As of Wednesday, public water systems that don’t monitor for PFAS have three years to start. If they detect PFAS at levels above the national limits, they will have two more years to purchase and install new technologies to reduce PFAS in their drinking water. The EPA believes that these new limits will prevent tens of thousands of deaths and serious illnesses associated with exposure to PFAS.

The EPA’s new limit reflects the lowest levels of PFOA and PFOS that laboratories can detect, and that public water systems can treat. However, according to the agency, water systems should aim to eliminate the chemicals entirely, for there is no safe level of exposure.

PFAS are synthetic chemicals that take thousands of years to break down in the environment. PFAS have been used in manufacturing since the 1940s due to their ability to repel oil, water, and heat. Manufacturers have known that these chemicals are toxic for years yet continue to use them.

“They can be found in everything from nonstick cookware to cleaning and personal care products,” said Regan during a press briefing, “But there’s no doubt that many of these chemicals can be harmful to our health and our environment.”

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