President Joe Biden's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Wednesday a national drinking water standard that would set new restrictions on six cancer-causing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS or "forever chemicals."
The proposed regulations would set specific limits for some types of PFAS - as low as 4 parts per trillion - while also restricting industries from discharging them into waterways, and requiring public water systems to monitor for such chemicals.
On Nantucket, where PFAS contamination around Nantucket Memorial Airport and other private properties on the island have spurred action by municipal officials, the EPA announcement was closely watched.
"We owe it to our future generations to protect them from the harms of PFAS. The proposed EPA drinking water standard is a promising first step in safeguarding our communities from the wide-reaching impacts of PFAS contamination," said Ayesha Khan of the Nantucket PFAS Action Group.
Beyond the airport's response to PFAS contamination believed to have been caused by the discharge of firefighting foam, the town is also performing an island-wide assessment of PFAS that is inclusive of wastewater treatment plant residuals and landfill operations.
"I think it’s a step in the right direction," Nantucket Health Department director Roberto Santamaria said of the EPA's proposed regulations on PFAS. "Nantucket is already ahead of the curve and the Board of Health is already considering new well regulations. We’ll have a public hearings about it in May or June."
The EPA's proposal, if finalized, would regulate PFOA and PFOS as individual contaminants, and will regulate four other PFAS – PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX Chemicals – as a mixture. For PFOA and PFOS, the EPA is proposing to regulate at a level they can be reliably measured at 4 parts per trillion.
Used to manufacture stain- and water-resistant products, the family of chemicals known as PFAS are suspected to increase the risk of kidney and testicular cancers, as well as other health conditions. They are often called "forever chemicals" because they do not break down and remain present in the environment. The chemicals are used in a wide range of products from non-stick pans, to fast food wrappers, to firefighting foam
“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. “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.”
Some industry groups offered a different perspective on the EPA's proposal, inluding the American Chemistry Council (ACC) which issued the following statement on the EPA's proposed Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs):
“PFOA and PFOS were phased out of production by our members more than eight years ago. We support restrictions on their use globally, and we support drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS based on the best available science.
“However, we have serious concerns with the underlying science used to develop these proposed MCLs and have previously challenged the EPA based on the process used to develop that science. We are not alone in our concerns, as others have been on the record criticizing their development. And new peer-reviewed research also calls into question the basis for EPA’s overly conservative approach to assessing one of the health endpoints."