The update is based on the most recent science, which suggest that these chemicals are much more hazardous to human health than scientists had thought and are probably more dangerous at levels thousands of times lower than previously believed.
This PFAS family of synthetic chemicals remains in the environment and in the human body for a long time, as the “forever” name implies.
There are hundreds of chemicals in the family, but some of the best-known are PFOS and PFOA.
Science has found that exposure to PFAS can lead to serious health problems. Exposure is linked with liver damage, thyroid disease, diabetes, decreased fertility, kidney problems, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression and cancer.
Starting in the 1940s, manufacturers widely adopted the use of PFAS because they are good at repelling oil and water. Their signature elemental bonds of fluorine and carbon are extremely strong, making it difficult for the chemicals to break down in the environment or in our bodies.
The chemicals can be found in Teflon nonstick products; water repellants on carpets, furniture and clothes; and paints, cleaning products, cosmetics, food packaging and firefighting foams.
These chemicals can easily migrate into air, dust, food, soil and water. People can also be exposed to them through food packaging and industrial work.
In 2016, the EPA recommended PFAS concentrations in drinking water of no more than 70 parts per trillion (ppt). The interim advisories updated Wednesday recommend no more than 0.0004 ppt of PFOA and 0.02 ppt of PFOS, so low that the chemicals cannot be reliably detected.
Also Wednesday, for the first time, the EPA issued final advisories for limits in drinking water of the PFAS chemicals GenX, considered a replacement for PFOA, and PFBS, a replacement for PFOS. It now advises less than 10 ppt for GenX and 2,000 ppt for PFBS.
“Today’s actions highlight EPA’s commitment to use the best available science to tackle PFAS pollution, protect public health, and provide critical information quickly and transparently,” EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox said in a statement.
The advisories are not enforceable, but they could have an effect on drinking water rules and monitoring programs at the state and federal level. There are also thousands of lawsuits making their way through the courts against companies that used these chemicals.
The EPA said it is making available the first $1 billion of $5 billion in grant funding from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help communities reduce PFAS in drinking water.