Federal drinking water standards set for some PFAS chemicals
Federal drinking water standards set for some PFAS chemicals

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finalized new drinking water standards for some per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a historic leap forward for public health and environmental protection. These rules set maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for six PFAS. The MCLS for PFOA and PFOS are set at 4 parts per trillion (ppt) each. Other PFAS chemicals are regulated under a “hazard index,” a clever way of evaluating the combined risk when one or more of the PFAS types are present. The rules will drastically reduce the prevalence of “forever chemicals” in drinking water. PFAS has been linked to numerous negative health effects and several types of cancer. 

Protecting Public Health 

The MCLs would ensure that public water systems actively monitor and mitigate the levels of PFAS in drinking water. For reference, Ann Arbor is already doing this and was a positive case study for the rest of the country. Taking a proactive approach nationwide will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of PFAS-attributable illnesses annually. The rules take effect immediately but public water systems have until 2029 to make updates for compliance.

Michigan Was an Early Leader in PFAS Monitoring 

Michigan has been at the forefront of addressing PFAS contamination. In August 2020, the state established its own MCLs for seven PFAS compounds. These standards apply to approximately 2,700 public drinking water supplies and were considered by the EPA as they formulated federal rules. 

Federal Standards Create Stability, Fairness, and Predictability 

The key benefit of having federal drinking water standards is that even states that have actively avoided looking for PFAS or regulating their drinking water will now be made to protect their residents. In states like Michigan that already have robust monitoring programs and some PFAS regulation, enforceable, federal standards create regulatory predictability. Both private and public entities know what to expect and the quality of drinking water they must deliver. Having nationwide drinking water standards reduces the need for suppliers to navigate a patchwork of state and federal regulations. It also allows state and federal regulators to work together more fluently, avoiding the need to reconcile state rules with federal rules.

By Addressing PFAS, We Protect Water in Other Ways 

PFAS are notoriously difficult to remove from drinking water and they tend to co-occur with other PFAS chemicals and other contaminants. By enforcing the removal of just a handful in drinking water, many other PFAS and toxic chemicals will be removed as well simply by being subject to better treatment technology.

More Work to Do

On the timescales that federal pollutant action is measured—it often takes decades—the response to PFAS was fairly quick once the health risks were widely known. Indeed, this is the first time since the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments were passed in 1996 that a contaminant or set of contaminants have moved through the entire regulatory process to the point of rules being set.

Countless scientists and environmental advocates played a role in advancing these protective policies. The Michigan League of Conservation Voters, the Michigan Sierra Club, the Michigan Environmental Council, the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network, the National Wildlife Federation, the Huron River Watershed Council, and many others provided expertise and gave a voice to residents affected by PFAS. Many Michigan residents are now participating in medical monitoring studies to better understand the long-term health risks. Michigan universities and hospitals are leading those public health research efforts. State and federal regulators continue to discover new contaminated sites while PFAS manufacturers and users continue to fight legal battles and avoid responsibility for the harm they’ve caused. The work goes on.

Support Polluter Pay Laws

One way to help address the legacy of pollution left by PFAS and other contaminants is to support robust Polluter Pay laws in Michigan. Learn more here.