Lisa Song, environmental reporter with NC Policy Watch, contributed reporting to this piece.
The EPA last week announced its proposed maximum contaminant levels — MCLs — for six types of toxic PFAS in drinking water and acknowledged that no amount of these compounds is safe.
“EPA anticipates if fully implemented the rule will prevent tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses or deaths,” the agency wrote in a slide presentation obtained by NC Policy Watch.
Known MCLs, they are legally more robust than the agency’s previous health advisory goals, in that they’re enforceable under the Safe Drinking Water Act. If the rules are finalized, public utilities will face a herculean and expensive task of installing advanced treatment systems to reduce the compounds from treated water.
Despite the work ahead, the EPA’s announcement was hailed by Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, as an important step towards mitigating the harm posed by PFAS.
“Addressing PFAS contamination has been a top priority of mine for years, and I’m thrilled to see the Biden Administration take this important step forward to limit forever chemicals in our drinking water,” said Pingree, who runs an organic farm on the island of North Haven. “PFAS chemicals are persistent and toxic, posing serious health risks to all Americans.”
Dozens of Maine towns have levels above 20 ppt in water systems
The EPA set an MCL of 4 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS. It is essentially detection level — the lowest concentration that can be reliably detected by most laboratories.
For four other PFAS types, the EPA would measure them as a mixture: GenX, PFNA, PFBS and PFHxS, either individually or combined, should not exceed 1 part per trillion.
Depending on exposure levels, PFAS have been linked to multiple health problems, including thyroid and liver disorders, reproductive and fetal development problems, immune system deficiencies and kidney and testicular cancers.
These are the types of PFAS under the proposed new rule: PFOA 4 parts per trillion; PFOS 4 ppt; And any individual or combination of these compounds should not exceed 1 ppt: GenX, PFNA, PFBS, and PFHxS.
The EPA rule goes even further than a law signed in 2021 by Maine Governor Janet Mills, which set a drinking water maximum contaminant level of 20 ppt for one or more of six PFAS: PFNA, PFHxS, PFOA, and PFOX.
As of December 2022, all public water systems in Maine, including schools and childcare facilities, were required to submit a sample of drinking water for PFAS testing. Many communities and sites were found to have MCL levels above 20 ppt including: Addison, Bar Harbor, Nobleboro, South Bristol, Bradford, Carrasbassett Valley, Chebeague Island, Union, Hancock, Hermon, Orland, Houlton, Gorham, Charleston, Buxton, Standish, Hollis, West Gardiner, Lebanon, Hodgdon, Brooklin, Deer Isle, Blue Hill, Cherryfield, Raymond, Whitefield, Cushing, Mount Vernon, Eliot, Limerick, Lyman, Searsmont, Carmel, Corinth, Glenburn, Surry, Greene, East Machias, and Calais.
Most of those are already slated for treatment. The complete results are available here.
In addition to drinking water, PFAS are found in microwave popcorn bags, compost, artificial turf, fast food containers, firefighting foam, water-, stain- and grease-resistant fabrics, and hundreds of other consumer products.
There are upward of 12,000 types of PFAS; they’re known as “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
If the rules are finalized as written, public utilities would be required to monitor for the six types of PFAS, notify the public of the levels, and reduce the concentrations in drinking water.
“No one should ever wonder if the PFAS in their tap water will one day make them sick,” said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear in a prepared statement. “… Today is a good step towards tackling our nation’s massive PFAS public health crisis by including commercially relevant PFAS like GenX.
“We now need every office within the EPA, and all other federal agencies, to use a whole of government approach to address PFAS as a class, stop all PFAS exposures at their source, make responsible parties pay for the clean-up, and give overexposed communities access to health monitoring.”
Infrastructure dollars proposed for clean up
Because PFAS can’t be removed by traditional treatment methods, most public utilities would have to spend millions of dollars to upgrade their systems. Some of this funding would be available through the federal infrastructure plan.
Maine is already slated to receive nearly $19 million in infrastructure funding to address contaminants like PFAS
“This is going to have a serious impact on water providers across the nation because PFAS is so ubiquitous and systems will be required to test, monitor and remove these substances if the amount found exceeds the MCLs,” wrote Valentina Marastoni-Bieser, vice president of marketing and client engagement for the SL Environmental Law Group, based in New Hampshire.
“We have yet to see a contaminant with such a combination of dangerous attributes … This is truly unprecedented and likely to be the most expensive environmental hazard in history. Unless the manufacturers responsible for this pollution are held accountable, rate payers — who have also likely been exposed to the toxic chemical — will be the ones to bear the burden of billions of dollars needed to clean the contaminated water.”
The most common advanced systems for public utilities include reverse osmosis and granular activated carbon. But that’s not necessarily the end of the PFAS waste. Contaminated material must be disposed of in special landfills.