▶ Watch Video: Forever chemicals: The threat of PFAS in our water

The Biden administration is proposing the first-ever national standard for six “forever chemicals” in drinking water,  the Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday. Per- and polyfluorinated substances are a group of compounds knowns as PFAS found in multiple water sources and can cause ailments like cancer, liver disease and more. 

The planned regulation would establish legally enforceable levels for six PFAS known to occur in drinking water and builds on previous EPA proposals and regulations, the agency said in a news release

The proposal, if finalized, would regulate two PFAS compounds as “individual contaminants,” which would be regulated at four parts per trillion. Four other PFAS compounds would be deemed “a mixture,” and would limit the combined levels of those substances in water. Systems would also have to notify the public and work to reduce contamination if levels exceed the proposed regulatory standards, the EPA said. 

The agency said that the proposed regulation would complement state efforts to limit PFAS compounds and could “prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses” over time. 

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (known as PFAS) are long-lasting compounds that are showing up in soil, ground water, drinking water sources, even rainfall, and have been linked to cancer, liver damage, thyroid disease, and other ailments.

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PFAS can cause serious health problems, including cancer, if people are exposed to them over a long period of time, the EPA said. The potentially toxic substances are also called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down, and can be found in wastewater, groundwater, rain, drinking water and more. PFAS are used in tools like non-stick coatings, wax, or any surface that repels water, grease or oil. 

Because PFAS do not break down and because they are found in so many places, they can enter a person’s body and remain there, Patrick Macroy, the former deputy director of the advocacy group Defend Our Heath in Maine, told “CBS Mornings” in August

“Communities across this country have suffered far too long from the ever-present threat of PFAS pollution. That’s why President Biden launched a whole-of-government approach to aggressively confront these harmful chemicals, and EPA is leading the way forward,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan in the news release announcing the proposed regulation. “EPA’s proposal to establish a national standard for PFAS in drinking water is informed by the best available science, and would help provide states with the guidance they need to make decisions that best protect their communities. This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants.”

The EPA has requested input on the proposal, inviting the public, water system managers and public health professionals to comment through their public docket. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Pennsylvania and the co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional PFAS Taskforce, praised the new plan. 

Destroying “forever chemicals” in firefighting foam


“I have long supported the implementation of a national drinking water standard to ensure that the water in our communities is clean and safe for consumption,” Fitzpatrick said in a statement. “Today’s announcement is a step in the right direction as we work to prevent the future contamination of PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ in our water and I look forward to continuing to work with the Administration to enforce a high standard of water quality.”

The new plan is one of several actions that the Biden administration has taken to respond to PFAS pollution, the EPA said. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in 2021 included $10 billion to address emerging contaminants including PFAS, and last month, the EPA said that $2 billion of that fund would be available to “promote access to safe and clean water in small, rural and disadvantaged communities while supporting local economies.” 

The EPA said in the news release that the agency will begin to monitor “thousands of drinking water systems across the country” for dozens of PFAS compounds. Other actions to address the substances include finalizing a proposal to designate two PFAS compounds as “hazardous substances,” and strengthening existing standards.