The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday reduced its proposed guidelines for two chemicals recently regulated in New York State drinking water to levels that are not only lower than state standards, but below current detection ability.
The EPA set nonbinding limits for exposure to perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, at .02 parts per trillion and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, at .004 parts per trillion. Those health risk thresholds, which are based on new science and consider lifetime exposure, replace the 70 parts per trillion advisory level set by the agency in 2016.
The advisory is intended to guide state and local governments in addressing the contaminants in the water supply. New York in 2020 set drinking water standards for PFOS and PFOA — chemicals used in firefighting foam, carpet and more — at 10 parts per trillion. That’s equal to 10 grains of sand in an Olympic-size swimming pool. The EPA said it plans to introduce national drinking water regulations in the fall.
What to know
- Carpets, clothing, furniture fabrics, paper packaging for food, firefighting foam and nonstick and stain-resistant cookware and other materials resistant to water, grease or stains are some of the products that have been made using the contaminants PFOS and PFOA.
- Manufacturers like 3M began voluntarily phasing out production of the chemicals in 2000.
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
On Long Island, PFOS and PFOA have been found in hundreds of public and private wells since the problem came to light around 2016. Water providers bring contaminants down to nondetectable levels in the water supply using granular activated carbon filters.
The state Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Conservation said Thursday in a joint statement that they are “evaluating U.S. EPA’s new health advisory guidance for PFAS contaminants and how it will complement New York’s nation-leading, rigorous and enforceable drinking water standard.”
The agencies said the state is moving toward regulating an additional 23 PFAS chemicals this year.
The Long Island Water Conference, which represents water providers, said it supported measures to provide clean water and that hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent locally to test and treat for PFOS and PFOA.
“While exposure to PFOS and PFOA are prevalent throughout our environment and in many consumer and household products, water providers accept the responsibility of limiting residents’ exposure to these compounds as much as possible, and that is exactly what we have done and will continue to do,” said Dennis Kelleher, a spokesman for the water conference, in a statement Wednesday.
Exposure to perfluorinated compounds like PFOS and PFOA, which are collectively known as PFAS, can lead to reproductive issues, developmental delays, increased cancer risk and immune system problems, according to the EPA. They are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not degrade over time.
Environmental advocates said the announcement confirms their stance that there are virtually no safe exposure levels for the chemicals. The Albany-based environmental nonprofit Environmental Advocates NY called on Gov. Kathy Hochul to lower New York’s standard to 2 parts per trillion, the lowest level that can be detected with current methods.
“This announcement from the EPA is a game changer and should have huge ripple effects into how New York protects public health from PFAS,” said Rob Hayes, the nonprofit’s director of clean water.
Representatives from Hochul’s office did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.
The EPA also issued health advisories for perfluorobutane sulfonic acid and its potassium salt (PFBS) at 2,000 parts per trillion and for hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO) dimer acid and its ammonium, also known as GenX, at 10 parts per trillion. In chemical and product manufacturing, GenX chemicals are considered a replacement for PFOA, and PFBS is considered a replacement for PFOS, according to the EPA.
The EPA also said it is making $1 billion in grant money available — the first of $5 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law grant funding — for states to address emerging contaminants.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical companies, criticized the method the EPA used to arrive at those levels and said they could not be achieved with existing technology.
“ACC is concerned that the process for development of these LHAs [Lifetime Health Advisories] is fundamentally flawed,” the council said in a statement. “We will continue to engage with EPA and policymakers at the state and federal level to advocate for strong, science-based policies that are protective of human health and the environment.”
David Andrews, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based national nonprofit advocacy organization, noted it is the first time the EPA incorporated studies conducted on humans and not solely animals in its PFOS/PFOA health advisory. He said the new guidelines are encouraging but also frustrating, as scientists have known of the dangers of these chemicals for years.
“It’s indicative of a failure in terms of being able to regulate new industrial chemicals,” Andrews said.