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EPA: ‘Forever chemicals’ pose risk even at very low levels

The EPA on Wednesday

issued nonbinding health advisories that set health

risk thresholds for PFOA

and PFOS to near zero.

Associated Press

The Environmental Protection Agency is warning that two nonstick and stain-resistant compounds found in drinking water are more dangerous than previously thought and pose health risks even at levels so low they cannot currently be detected.

The two compounds, known as PFOA and PFOS, have been voluntarily phased out by U.S. manufacturers, but there are a limited number of ongoing uses and the chemicals remain in the environment because they do not degrade over time. The compounds are part of a larger cluster of “forever chemicals” known as PFAS that have been used in consumer products and industry since the 1940s.

The agency is inviting states and territories to apply for $1 billion under the new bipartisan infrastructure law to address PFAS and other contaminants in drinking water. Money can be used for technical assistance, water quality testing, contractor training and installation of centralized treatment, officials said.

Several states have set their own drinking water limits to address PFAS contamination that are far tougher than the federal guidance. The toxic industrial compounds are associated with serious health conditions, including cancer and reduced birth weight.

PFAS is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are used in nonstick frying pans, water-repellent sports gear, stain-resistant rugs, cosmetics and countless other consumer products. The chemical bonds are so strong that they do not degrade or do so only slowly in the environment and remain in a person’s bloodstream indefinitely.

The revised health guidelines are based on new science and consider lifetime exposure to the chemicals, the EPA said. Officials are no longer confident that PFAS levels allowed under the 2016 guidelines “do not have adverse health impacts,″ an EPA spokesman said.

While the new guidelines set acceptable risk below levels that can currently be measured, as a practical matter the EPA recommends that utilities take action against the chemicals when they reach levels that can be measured — currently about four parts per trillion, a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday night.

The EPA said it expects to propose national drinking water regulations for PFOA and PFOS later this year, with a final rule expected in 2023.

The agency said the advisories provide technical information that federal, state and local agencies can use to address PFAS in drinking water, including water quality monitoring, use of filters and other technologies that reduce PFAS, and strategies to reduce exposure to the substances.

Environmental and public health groups hailed the announcement as a good first step. Advocates have long urged action on PFAS after thousands of communities detected PFAS chemicals in their water. PFAS chemicals have been confirmed at nearly 400 military installations and at least 200 million people in the United States are drinking water contaminated with PFAS, according to the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization.

Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said “the science is clear: These chemicals are shockingly toxic at extremely low doses.” He called on the EPA to regulate all PFAS chemicals “with enforceable standards as a single class of chemicals.”

Melanie Benesh, legislative attorney for the Environmental Working Group, said EPA’s announcement “should set off alarm bells for consumers and regulators” alike.

Legislation passed by the House would set a national drinking water standard for PFAS and direct the EPA to develop discharge limits for a range of industries suspected of releasing PFAS into the water. The bill has stalled in the Senate.