The US Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday announced a proposal that, when it goes into effect, will limit the level of a group of chemicals present in tap water and linked to a number of negative health effects.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, aka PFAS, are chemicals in products and coatings that resist heat, so they’re commonly found in clothes, furniture, nonstick pans and more. They’re a concern, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because they don’t break down in the environment. They move through soil, contaminate drinking water and build up in wildlife and animals — including most people in the US.
While having some amount in your body “does not imply” that you’ll develop a health effect, per the CDC, some communities or cities have more contamination than others, and some people are more at risk of PFA contamination. The new guidelines or limits for water “would help provide states with the guidance they need to make decisions that best protect their communities,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a news release.
“This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants,” Regan added.
Here’s what we know.
How harmful are PFAS?
PFAS, according to the Environmental Working Group, are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down and will build up in the environment and in bodies over time. Like most potentially harmful chemicals or elements in our environment, the concern is over a larger amount or prolonged exposure that increases the risk of negative health effects.
Some health effects that may be linked to higher levels of PFAS include increased cholesterol, changes to the liver, increased risk of certain cancers, low birth weight, high blood pressure in pregnancy and even decreased vaccine response, according to the CDC. Young children and those who are pregnant may be more susceptible to PFAS than the general population, as are some industrial workers whose jobs have them around these chemicals. To check for water contamination in your area, you can use the EWG’s ZIP code search feature.
Groups like the EWG have been calling for more federal regulation of PFAS levels for years, and have proposed limits that are significantly lower than what’s currently set at the national level. However, states or cities may set their own levels and water filtration rules for PFAS.
What will the new regulation do?
Once effective, probably by the end of this year, the regulations will require public water systems to monitor for PFAS, the EPA said.
If the PFAS level exceeds the limit that’s been set by regulators, the public will need to be notified and water systems will have to reduce the level of contamination. The new acceptable level will be 4 parts per trillion — significantly down from the previous guideline of 70 ppt.
As The New York Times and other media have reported, some concerns have mounted over how much money water utilities will need to spend to implement the rules, including from the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers. The ACC, in part, criticized the EPA over the potential cost of the new limits and their “overly conservative” approach and said two types of chemicals included in the new rule were already phased out of production years ago.
When will it be in effect?
Cities, states, utility companies and water treatment centers won’t be expected to change anything until the regulation is finalized, which the EPA expects by the end of 2023. Until then, the public can submit comments to the federal government through this website.
For rules and tips on submitting comments to the EPA, the agency directs people here.
Will my water filter work against PFAS?
Unfortunately, if you use one of the popular activated carbon filters (like a Brita pitcher, for example) it might not remove PFAS as effectively or consistently as a reverse osmosis filter — a more expensive and involved filter that typically fits under your sink, according to research from Duke University.
The Public Health and Safety Organization has a list of water filter devices that may filter out PFAS. As the Los Angeles Times reports, some of these effective filters may function more like a pitcher, but they still have to be connected to a larger system.
While water is one main source of potential exposure to PFAS (since we need to drink it every day to live), drinking more purified water isn’t the only way you can reduce exposure to PFAS. Because the chemicals are found in nonstick or repellent materials, switching out nonstick pans for stainless steel or cast iron cookware may also reduce the risk. You can also “boycott” plastic to-go containers, as CNN reports, and try not to use water-resistant sprays, stain-resistant carpets and anything else that might be coated with those chemicals.
PFAS also extend beyond the kitchen. Some of these chemicals may be intentionally added to cosmetic products to “condition and smooth the skin,” according to the US Food and Drug Administration. Many types of makeup, shaving cream, lotion and other products may contain them. Some common PFAS as ingredients include PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), perfluorooctyl triethoxysilane, perfluorononyl dimethicone, perfluorodecalin, and perfluorohexane, according to the FDA, so you can check your medicine cabinet labels if you’re concerned.
If you’re interested in doing a deeper dive into cosmetic ingredients, the EWG has a page where you can look up personal care products and see how their ingredients are rated for potential health concerns. But when doing a deep dive into ingredients like this, it’s also important to keep in mind the benefits of the products you’re using — reducing the risk of skin cancer with sunscreen, for one example, or treating painfully dry skin with lotion.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.