What are the PFAS chemicals the EPA wants to ban?

Water running from tap into kitchen sink.
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This week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposed rule that would put tighter restrictions on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS in drinking water.

What are PFAS? WWL’s Newell Normand and Louisiana State Health Officer Dr. Joe Kanter detail what these “forever chemicals” are and why the government is willing to enforce expensive testing protocols for them.

“This is a couple of years in the making,” said Kanter of the proposed rule. “The EPA has been signaling for that time. So, it’s not a surprise, but it will be a big change to drinking water systems.”

He explained that the chemicals are used in many products, such as nonstick coating for cookware, flame retardant products, fire suppressants and in chemical industry applications. They are known as “forever chemicals” because they have a vey long half-life and tend not to degrade. This becomes an issue when PFAS chemicals are deposited in the ground.

“They stay there for a very, very long time, make their way into groundwater and can traditionally be found in drinking water and potable water,” Kanter explained. “They’re also a known carcinogen, typically liver and kidney cancer.”

“Because of their widespread use and their persistence in the environment, many PFAS are found in the blood of people and animals all over the world and are present at low levels in a variety of food products and in the environment,” said the EPA of PFAS.

In its proposed rule, the EPA identified six specific PFAS chemicals to regulate: PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX Chemicals. However, there are around 9,000 of them, per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The EPA picked out... the six that they have the most robust data on,” said Kanter. “I’m sure that there’s many other ones that that would fit that bill. You know, you only really test for what you know how to test for.”

After it was announced this week, the proposed rule entered a public comment period.

“It proposes very tight regulations on these chemicals... essentially sets, very low limits for the amount that they can be found in drinking water and hold drinking water systems to those standards, requires drinking water systems to test for these chemicals, to report the results of those tests publicly to their consumers, public, and then to keep those levels below… these new standards,” said Kanter of the rule.

Although this is intended to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals, Kanter said the proposal is controversial.

“I’ll tell you, it’s a controversial rule for a couple of reasons,” he said. “On one hand, I think there are clear health benefits. There’s no question very few people would challenge that these chemicals are carcinogens and that they should be limited as much as possible. On the other hand, it’s going to be hard for a lot of this, for water systems to satisfy the requirements of the law as written – not that it’s not a worthy endeavor to do, just saying it’s going to be hard and it’s going to cost a lot of money.”

Kanter explained that testing for PFAS is expensive and that the testing industry would need to expand to meet the demands of the rule if it is finalized. Municipal water systems will also have to invest in changes, he said.

Listen here for the whole conversation. Normand and Kanter also tackle recent cases of avian flu, the CDC’s discussion of a poultry vaccination campaign and the East Palestine Ohio train derailment and air/soil monitoring.

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