The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing new standards that would require water providers to limit two of the most common PFAS “forever chemicals” to the lowest levels detectable by modern technology.
That’s lower than Michigan’s existing state limits, and an acknowledgement of the health risks society faces from a widely-used class of chemicals found in everything from nonstick pans to fast food wrappers.
EPA officials announced the proposed regulations, known as maximum contaminant levels, during a Tuesday press conference in Wilmington, North Carolina. The regulations could take effect by year’s end.
“When fully implemented, this rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-related illnesses,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said at the event.
The proposed rule would require water utilities to limit each of two compounds, PFOS and PFOA, to no more than 4 parts per trillion. That’s the lowest amount modern technology can detect, but EPA officials say there is no safe level in drinking water.
Michigan’s regulators, lawmakers and environmentalists celebrated the announcement as a long-awaited victory for public health.
“I’m elated,” Tony Spaniola, co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network, told Bridge Michigan on Tuesday.
As of Tuesday afternoon, some Michigan water providers were struggling to make sense of what the new standards would mean for them.
EPA officials estimate it will cost $772 million yearly for water systems nationwide to comply with the rule. An EPA fact sheet noted that the federal infrastructure law made $9 billion available to help water systems deal with PFAS and other emerging contaminants.
For now, said Grand Rapids Water System Manager Wayne Jernberg, the city’s water supply appears to be in the clear, even under the new tighter standards since it gets its water from Lake Michigan.
Most of the time, Jernberg said, periodic tests fail to detect any PFAS. But Jernberg noted that can change on a dime, as it did in the Upper Peninsula community of Menominee following a fire at a paper mill.
“The No. 1 priority for me is, if you’re going to put standards out like this, you better have the money to back it up,” Jernberg said. “You better not be asking the general citizens to pay for it. You better be asking the contaminators to pay for it.”
PFAS problems statewide
Chemical manufacturers knew about the risks associated with PFAS compounds decades ago, but shielded those findings from the public. The chemicals are common in household products, have been used to fight fires at military bases and civilian airports from Oscoda to Grayling, to waterproof shoes in Rockford in west Michigan, and to suppress fumes at chrome plating facilities across the state.
With few safeguards on their use, the chemicals seeped into aquifers, rivers and lakes, and residents’ faucets. The compounds also entered the tissue of fish and wildlife, prompting “do not eat” advisories that have upended Michigan’s hunting and fishing traditions.
Michigan is among a host of states that have sued chemical conglomerate 3M and other chemical manufacturers in hopes of recouping cleanup costs. The cases are pending in U.S. District Court in South Carolina.
Meanwhile, 3M has announced plans to stop manufacturing PFAS compounds by 2025.
The new EPA proposal would also set a combined limit, known as a hazard index, for four other compounds: PFHxS, PFBS, PFNA, and HFPO-DA and GenX. A hazard index of 1.0 would indicate health risks, requiring utilities to limit the chemicals.
Spaniola said he was particularly pleased to see the EPA acknowledge the health risks associated with GenX, a newer PFAS compound that industry deployed to replace PFOS and PFOA after phasing those two compounds out of production.
“The industry has been saying ‘trust us, it’s safe,’’ Spaniola said of GenX. The EPA declaring the opposite, he said, “is big.”
But Spaniola cautioned that thousands of PFAS compounds remain unregulated, posing unknown risks to the public. He urged federal regulators to press forward with more comprehensive regulations.
“The real goal here is to regulate PFAS as a class, rather than on a one-off basis,” he said.
Known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t readily break down in the environment, PFAS compounds are found in a host of products, from nonstick pans to fast food wrappers, waterproof boots and stain-proof couches.
Their durability has allowed the chemicals to contaminate waterways on a massive scale. PFAS is present in virtually everyone’s blood, and can be found in some of earth’s most remote places.
“It’s the resilient and durable qualities that make these chemicals so useful in everyday life,” said Regan, the EPA administrator. “But it’s also what makes them particularly harmful to people in the environment.”
Tuesday’s proposed limits mark the first time the EPA has updated drinking water standards for any chemical in more than twenty years.
Rob Bilott, a Cincinnati attorney who has spent decades urging the EPA to regulate PFAS in drinking water, issued a statement calling the proposal a “huge victory for public health in this country.”
But Bilott added “it has taken far too long to get to this point.” He blamed the delay on cover-ups and misinformation campaigns by companies that produce and profit off PFAS.
Despite mounting evidence in recent years about the risks associated with PFAS, federal regulators have been slow to act.
Frustrated with the federal inaction as Michigan endured a PFAS contamination crisis, state officials in 2020 enacted their own drinking water standards. At the time, they were among the nation’s strict.
The new federal proposal would be stricter than Michigan’s rules, which allow up to 8 ppt of PFOA and 16 ppt of PFAS in drinking water. Michigan also sets individual limits for the four PFAS compounds that EPA wants to regulate cumulatively.
State officials said they welcomed Tuesday’s announcement.
“It is too soon to say at this point what this means for Michigan’s standards,” EGLE spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid Jr. wrote in an email, “but the state is closely watching federal action around PFAS and will monitor the proposed EPA standards as they navigate the rule-making and final approval process.”
Christy McGillivray, political and legislative director for Sierra Club Michigan, urged Michigan to strengthen Michigan’s PFAS rules without waiting for the EPA to act. That could be hard, though, since state lawmakers in 2018 banned state regulators from setting rules that are stricter than federal rules, except in limited cases. That built upon earlier legislation that also cut back on EGLE’s rulemaking authority.
“EGLE was deprived of rule-making authority, and we need to restore that, so the state can act quickly,” McGillivray said. “The science is clear: We should act on this, and we should act on it fast.”
Tuesday’s announcement is part of a wide-ranging EPA effort to better regulate PFAS. The agency also plans to list PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under federal Superfund laws, a step toward holding manufacturers financially responsible for cleaning up contamination.