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  • The Environmental Protection Agency used the most recent science to determine safe drinking water levels for four toxic chemicals found in hundreds of products.
  • The EPA updated the advisory levels for two chemicals — perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS).
  • The new recommendations are based on the most recent science and consider lifetime exposure.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued drinking water health advisories on June 15 for four synthetic pollutants known as “forever chemicals,” saying two of these can impact health even at levels close to zero.

Known as per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, these toxic chemicals are used in products such as non-stick cookware, food packaging, clothing, furniture and adhesives.

The chemicals do not break down easily, so they can remain in the environment for years and build up in fish and wildlife.

Studies have linked PFAS to liver and immune system damage, increased risk of cancer, low birth weight and other health problems.

The EPA also announced that it would make available $1 billion in grant funding as part of the Biden administration’s recent infrastructure law to help communities reduce PFAS in drinking water.

The funds can be used to cover the cost of technical assistance, water quality testing and installation of centralized treatment systems.

“Today’s actions highlight EPA’s commitment to use the best available science to tackle PFAS pollution, protect public health, and provide critical information quickly and transparently,” EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox said in a release. “EPA is also demonstrating its commitment to harmonize policies that strengthen public health protections with infrastructure funding to help communities — especially disadvantaged communities — deliver safe water.”

The EPA updated the advisory levels for two of the chemicals — perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) — based on the most recent science and also taking into account lifetime exposure. These replace levels EPA issued in 2016.

The new advisory levels indicate that these chemicals can cause negative health effects even when the amount in drinking water is close to zero. This is also below the level at which the EPA can currently detect them.

“The new EPA guidelines indicate that two PFAS chemicals are substantially more toxic than previously thought,” said Laurel Schaider, PhD, senior scientist at research group Silent Spring Institute. “Basically, no level of these PFAS chemicals should be found in drinking water.”

Manufacturers voluntarily stopped using these two chemicals in most circumstances, although there are still a few ongoing uses, the EPA said in its release.

PFAS are found in a variety of items and places. These include food packaging, household products, dust, fire-extinguishing foam and personal care products.

Because PFAS remain in the environment for a long time, they continue to be a health concern even after they are no longer in use.

The EPA warns that PFAS can be found in fish from water contaminated with PFAS and dairy from livestock exposed to PFAS.

The agency also introduced advisory levels for the two other chemicals — perfluorobutane sulfonic acid and its potassium salt (PFBS) and for hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO) dimer acid and its ammonium salt (“GenX” chemicals).

These chemicals are replacements for the partially phased-out PFOA and PFOS.

Schaider said while addressing these four chemicals is an important first step, the EPA needs to do much more to safeguard drinking water.

“We know that there are potentially dozens of other PFAS that are frequently found in drinking water and thousands of other PFAS that are in use,” she said.

This fall, the EPA plans to move forward with regulating PFAS, a step that has not been done before.

In the meantime, the drinking water health advisories will provide state, local and tribal agencies with information on addressing PFAS drinking water contamination.

The agency recommends that utilities and agencies monitor PFAS levels in drinking water, take steps to reduce that contamination and inform the residents about their exposure.

People who are concerned about PFAS levels in their drinking water can take steps to reduce their risk, such as installing a home water filter, the agency said.

If you have a well, you can also conduct testing to ensure that PFAS have not built up in the water.

Additionally, the EPA has information on identifying how to avoid eating fish from waterways containing PFAS.

As the EPA moves forward with its rule-making process for PFAS drinking water levels, the agency will also consider factors such as the feasibility and cost of detecting the chemicals, said Schaider.

As a result, “my guess is that the standard will ultimately be quite a bit higher and more in line with the standards that have been set by some of the U.S. states,” she said.

“But this is a really strong statement [from the EPA] that these chemicals are highly toxic.”

In addition, “this will lead to more water systems doing testing, and provide support for the states that have put into effect standards and guidelines that are stricter than the current EPA guidelines.”

The American Chemistry Council, an industry group, said in a statement that the EPA released the drinking water health advisories before the agency’s Science Advisory Board had completed its review of the science.

The group said it is concerned that the process used by the agency is “fundamentally flawed.”