‘A day of immense gratitude for water justice realized:’ EPA imposes limits on PFAS chemicals in drinking water

| April 11, 2024

In the first-ever national limits on toxic “forever chemicals” in drinking water, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced on Wednesday that it had finalized regulations of six kinds of per- and polyfluorinated chemicals, known as PFAS.

The limits, which are the first adoption of new maximum contaminant levels by the federal government since 1996, will lead to safer drinking water for roughly 100 million Americans and “will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses,” according to the EPA.

“The science is clear: Exposure to these six PFAS is linked to significant health risks,” the EPA said.

The EPA’s final National Primary Drinking Water Regulation requires utilities to reduce six kinds of toxic substances to very low levels in drinking water and to inform the public about contaminated drinking water.

In addition to the rule, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is making available $1 billion to help states and territories implement PFAS testing and treatment at public water systems and to help owners of private wells address PFAS contamination. 

The EPA estimates that 6 percent to 10 percent of the 66,000 public drinking water systems subject to this rule may have to take action to reduce PFAS to meet these new standards.

Public water systems will have three years to complete the initial monitoring requirements. They must inform the public of the level of PFAS measured in drinking water and implement solutions to reduce PFAS to levels below the standards within five years.

History of PFAs locally

A study jointly conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found that a class of PFAS was identified and more commonly found in the lower reaches of the Delaware River, where industrial uses are heavily concentrated.

The study analyzed 33 different forever chemicals in Pennsylvania rivers and streams and found that, of the 161 tested, 76 percent contained at least one of the chemicals.

Researchers did not detect any PFAS in the Upper Delaware watershed in upstate New York sites, but as they traveled south, they saw a steady increase in the concentration of PFAS.

PFAS also first surfaced in a 2022 water quality report by the Pennsylvania DEP, which flagged fish caught in 536 miles of streams in the Crosswicks-Neshaminy basin as being unfit to be eaten. 

Last year, New Jersey officials reached a $393 million settlement with the chemical maker Solvay Specialty Polymers to clean up various locations across 37 square miles contaminated by the chemicals in Gloucester and Camden Counties. It was the largest settlement in state history regarding contamination tied to a single company location. 

Celebration of EPA’s final rule

In the Delaware River watershed, the announcement was celebrated by multiple environmental groups. 

“For the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, this is a day of immense gratitude for water justice realized,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Riverkeeper Network. 

PFAS, which are also known as “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment and human body, are linked to serious health problems, including cancer, thyroid disruption and reduced vaccine responses.

Prolonged exposure to these chemicals has been linked to decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women, developmental effects or delays in children, among other health effects, according to the EPA.

“Some days, it was pushing a rock uphill, others were buoyed by the remarkable people, who, despite the harm some may have endured for generations, continued to work toward clean water, our constitutionally recognized environmental right,” Carluccio said of the path to get this final rule.

Impacts on utilities and manufacturers

Melanie Benesh of the national nonprofit Environmental Working Group said the new rules won’t directly affect what manufacturers are able to do but the group does anticipate future rules limiting how much manufacturers are able to put into the environment.

Benesh suggested that water utilities required to meet these new requirements may put pressure on upstream polluters to limit the amount they release so that the full burden does not fall on water providers, who have complained that the costs will be passed on to water customers.

She added that water and state permitting authorities can do more to incorporate limits into permits instead of waiting on the EPA to begin doing that. 

Locally, environmental groups continue to monitor PFAS along the Delaware River.

The Delaware River Basin Commission monitors PFAS concentrations in surface waters, sediment and fish tissue. And the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control maintains a list of sites being investigated for PFAS pollution in drinking water, surface water and groundwater.

At the state level, New York created a Water Quality Rapid Response Team in 2016 that addresses water pollution issues by sampling public water and private wells located “around facilities suspected or known to have used PFAS.”

The Environmental Working Group also provides an interactive PFAS contamination map that highlights nearby contamination.

Cloey Callahan

Cloey Callahan

Cloey Callahan graduated from the State University of New York at New Paltz in 2020 with her B.A. in communications and journalism. Since then, she's covered local news in the Hudson Valley across eight counties for two years, using a top-down approach and seeing how nationwide issues are impacting local residents. She pivoted to business news in 2022, covering the future of work across the globe, writing about things like artificial intelligence, the four-day workweek, diversity, equity and inclusion, unique office spaces, and more. She is currently a staff writer at Digiday's WorkLife.

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