The challenge of removing PFAS from drinking water

V:Your faucet cap can be a dangerous thing. If you’re like about 200 million Americans, every time you turn on the faucet, a variety of contaminants come out along with the water. These include trace amounts of PFAS, short for mono and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Also known as “permanent chemicals” because they remain in the environment for approximately that long, exposure to these ubiquitous manufacturing chemicals has been linked by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to potential health effects, including reduced fertility, hypertension in pregnant women. , increased risk of certain types of cancer (especially kidney cancer), delayed development of children, hormonal disorders, increased cholesterol, decreased efficiency of the immune system, etc.

PFAS are used in hundreds of products, including shampoos, soaps, non-stick pots and pans, food packaging, fire-fighting foam, fabrics and carpets, and have recently been found in toilet paper and menstrual products. But it’s PFAS in the water supply that has long been the biggest concern, simply because while our encounters with certain products may be rare, we all need water to survive.

On March 14, the EPA finally took action, announcing a new proposed regulation to eliminate six of the most common and dangerous PFASs from the national water supply. After a 90-day public comment period, the rule will be officially published by the end of the year, and water systems nationwide will have three years to install filters or change the wells and other sources they get their water from to ones that are PFAS-free.

“We expect water systems to be in compliance with the new regulation by the end of 2026,” said Eric Bernson, EPA’s director of standards and risk management.

People have been living with PFAS since they were first created in the 1940s, and thousands of different versions of the chemicals have been invented over the decades. The two most common and dangerous are known as PFOA and PFOS, both of which have been linked to the development of cancer. Back in 2002, under pressure from the EPA and advocacy groups, companies began agreeing to phase out PFOS in all products, followed by PFOA in 2015. produced up to barriers, in groundwater and wells.

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“Even putting the product in landfills doesn’t help because you have runoff that contaminates the groundwater,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the environmental organization Environmental Working Group. What’s more, Andrews said, the unaccounted for imports are manufactured in countries that have not banned PFOA and PFOS, meaning a steady flow of the chemicals continues into the US.

For these reasons, the EPA made PFOA and PFOS the first two PFASs on their new hit list, setting their maximum contaminant level (MCL) in water supplies at four parts per trillion (ppt). Ideally, the level would be zero ppt, but four is the lowest amount that can be reliably measured with existing technology. The four other PFAS targeted by the EPA are known as PFNA (with a 10 ppt MCL), PFHxS (9 ppt), PFBS (2,000 ppt), and FHPO-DA (10 ppt).

Picking those four out of the thousands of other PFASs was relatively easy because they are indicator chemicals; where one of these is found, the others usually hide as well. “They run into each other a lot,” Bernson says. Take out one of the bad guys and you’ll probably catch the other three as well.

Furthermore, while PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and FHPO-DA are not considered as deadly as PFOA and PFOS, they are by no means low risk. “Those are the most common others [PFAS] pollutants that are also very well studied,” Andrews says. “They have documented strong health risks.”

Eliminating those six PFAS alone could have huge negative consequences when it comes to public health. “We believe that thousands of deaths will be avoided and tens of thousands of illnesses will be avoided when this rule is fully implemented over the years,” says Bernson.

While EPA action against PFAS in the water supply has long been lobbied by advocacy groups, it took until recently for the political will and wallet to come together to make action possible. On October 21, 2021, EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced the agency’s sweeping “strategic roadmap” to limit PFAS use and hold polluters accountable, finally putting the chemicals in the federal government’s crosshairs. Shortly after, on November 15, 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act became law, including $9 billion for the EPA to combat emerging contaminants, including PFAS.

“Public water systems will be required to take the necessary actions to monitor and install treatment if necessary,” says Bernson. “And now there’s historic funding for it.”

However, there is less money there than meets the eye. Even if the entire $9 billion were used to eliminate PFAS from the water supply, which it won’t because some of that funding will go toward mitigating other contaminants, local water suppliers would incur some as-yet-undetermined costs for filtration or installation. transition to different wells or aquifers. But it won’t necessarily hit consumers. Ten states, including New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Michigan and Wisconsin, already have regulations that ban or at least limit PFAS in water supplies, and according to Andrews, water bills haven’t been affected much.

“Based on the technology available and what we’ve seen in states that have set stricter limits for PFAS contamination, there hasn’t been a significant increase in rates,” he says.

Until the EPA rule is fully in place, consumers willing to spend some can get ahead of the government and at least partially control the PFAS that comes out of their faucets. Testing your water for PFAS is possible, but it’s not cheap. “If someone wants to take on the cost of testing the water, we will [the EPA] maintain lists of approved labs, Bernson says, but there will be a cost to doing so. In New York State, for example, local labs charge $300 to $600 for the service.

Simple home charcoal water filters, which can run $50 to $200 per sink, can help filter out some PFAS, but not all. Reverse osmosis filters, which push water through a semi-permeable membrane, are more expensive — some can exceed $500 — and also allow some PFAS to seep through. “The filters are not very effective [eliminating] some shorter-chain PFOS compounds,” Andrews says. “They don’t remove all the contamination when they test. Of course, we’d like to see it get to the point where drinking water standards are in place and people don’t have to worry about installing filters. Everyone should have access to clean and safe drinking water.”

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