EPA Proposes Federal PFAS Regulation

March 24, 2023
photo of firefighters using flame retardant

On Tuesday, March 14, US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan announced that the agency had taken the first step to control toxic “forever chemicals” in drinking water. The proposed regulation sets legally enforceable limits on 6 per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a class of chemicals that have been used in a wide variety of products for more than 70 years and can now be found in soil and water sources across the globe. The EPA acted after scientific studies showed long-term exposure to these substances in amounts so small as to be virtually undetectable can cause severe health issues, including high cholesterol, kidney cancer, and thyroid, reproductive, and developmental problems. The proposed drinking water standard for two of the chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, was set at four parts per trillion. Any mixture containing one or more of the four other chemicals, PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX (relatively recent substitutes for PFOA and PFOS in consumer products), would be regulated using a hazard index calculation, as defined in the proposed rule. Under the proposed rule, water systems would be responsible for monitoring, and if PFAS are detected, administrators would have to inform their customers and find ways to limit or eliminate exposure. While applauded by public health experts, there are concerns about the costs to utilities and predictions of the significant rate increase to cover them. The chemicals are notoriously difficult to remove, and treatment technology is costly. In addition, the industry has raised questions about the science EPA relied on, and more litigation over the chemicals’ health effects is expected.

The EPA action is intended to complement state efforts to limit PFAS. Ten states have already established enforceable drinking-water standards for PFAS, and Arizona is among a list of others that have proposed limits. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) has a statewide PFAS sampling effort underway. Testing results are available on ADEQ's interactive map. To mitigate the cost burden on communities, Arizona and the EPA have identified and set aside funding to help water systems comply with PFAS health standards. Funding sources include federal funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Arizona’s Water Infrastructure Finance Authority.

A final rule is expected by the end of the year. The EPA is taking comments on the proposed rule for at least 60 days, and comments may be submitted at www.regulations.gov (Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2022-0114).