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Advocates cheer new limits for PFAS chemicals in drinking water

A kitchen faucet
WAMC
A kitchen faucet

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set new maximum contaminant levels for toxic chemicals that have tainted water supplies for millions of Americans, including several Northeast communities. Advocates are cheering the new protections against so-called PFAS compounds.

The White House says the new limits for PFAS compounds in drinking water are the first-ever legally enforceable national standards for the chemicals that have been linked to several ill health effects including forms of cancer.

Under the new rule, PFOA and PFOS, two of the most common PFAS pollutants detected in water supplies, will be limited to 4 parts per trillion, the lowest level that tests can reliably detect.

Other compounds including “GenX Chemicals” were given limits at 10 parts per trillion. EPA has also set limits for mixtures of some compounds.

Advocates for clean water and environmental health are cheering the long-awaited day. Hoosick Falls resident Loreen Hackett, a breast cancer survivor, began advocating for clean water as the Rensselaer County village made national headlines for its toxic pollution.

“Hoosick Falls was the tip of this really horrific spear, right? And remember now, the EPA has been involved in Hoosick Falls since the federal declarations of the NPLs, federal Superfund sites, since 2017. So, I would like to think they learned a lot that guided them to this point in time from Hoosick Falls. And then of course, other communities that started popping up everywhere,” said Hackett.

Hackett was thanked by federal officials on a call Wednesday afternoon.

“They did thank all the advocates. So, it was nice to be acknowledged in this, in what we've been pushing for nearly a decade,” said Hackett.

Ground was finally broken in March on a new water supply for the village.

The EPA says the new drinking water standards will protect 100 million people. Federal officials from New York including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are celebrating the announcement.

EPA says thousands of public drinking water systems across the country may have to take action to meet the new standards. The Biden-Harris administration says $1 billion in funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will help municipalities test for and treat PFAS contamination.

The new federal 4 parts per trillion limits for PFOA and PFOS are lower than the New York State Health Department’s 10 parts per trillion threshold set in 2020.

Rob Hayes, Director of Clean Water at Environmental Advocates NY, says while the Empire State has led the country in enforcing limits on the compounds, there’s more work to do.

“New York has certainly played a leadership role on the PFAS crisis. We've had drinking water standards on PFOA and PFOS for several years now. But this doesn't mean that New York should let up on its leadership. We still need Governor Hochul and the State Department of Health to step up and keep moving the ball forward to protect New Yorkers from PFAS,” said Hayes.

New York also set a limit of 1 part per billion for chemical 1,4-dioxane in drinking water. According to the state health department, public water systems must monitor for more than 100 different contaminants, including PFAS.

Tracy Carluccio of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network said this is the first adoption of new MCLs by the federal governmental since 1996.

“This monumental step by EPA, while too late in coming for those who have already been harmed, is one that is essential towards a just goal of providing all people across our nation with reliably safe drinking water,” said Carluccio.

The chemical industry quickly pushed back. The American Chemistry Council said in a statement in part:

“We strongly support the establishment of a science-based drinking water standard, but this rushed, unscientific approach is unacceptable when it comes to an issue as important as access to safe drinking water. We strongly oppose this rule and will be working with the broad range of concerned stakeholders to determine next steps.”

 

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.