The EPA will set a nationwide drinking water standard for two chemicals used in nonstick coatings and firefighting foam, going against earlier reports that it would instead let states set their own standards, the agency announced Feb. 14.
However, while the Environmental Protection Agency said it will begin the process of establishing these water standards by the end of 2019, it could ultimately be years before water utilities across the country will have to start the costly process of monitoring and filtering the chemicals out.
But the fact that the EPA is even launching this process goes against earlier reports out of the agency, where officials indicated they were leaning against a nationwide drinking water standard due to the wide variability of groundwater contamination levels in different parts of the country.
The two chemicals at issue are PFOA and PFOS, the key ingredients in making products like Teflon or Scotchgard. These chemicals were produced by 3M Co., and DowDuPont Inc, and others.
PFOA and PFOS are two members of a broader family of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
In addition to announcing it would begin pursuing a nationwide water standard for these two chemicals, the EPA will also list them as hazardous substances, which means the companies that produced them may have to bear the costs of cleaning them out of soil and water.
They’re used in everything from nonstick pans to food packaging and they all share the common trait of being extremely slow to break down in the environment. As a result, they can build up in drinking water, and ultimately in the human body, and cause myriad health problems that scientists are just beginning to understand.
PFAS contamination is especially high near many airports and Air Force bases, where the chemicals are in foams used to rapidly extinguish fires on runways.
Contamination problems also are acute near some factories that produced the chemicals, such as Chemours’ Fayetteville Works plant in North Carolina and a former DowDuPont plant in West Virginia.
GenX Not Yet Regulated
Both of these companies, along with 3M, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, and several chemical makers, are facing dozens of lawsuits from plaintiffs who said PFAS chemicals sickened them or their loved ones.
However, the EPA’s Feb. 14 announcement mainly pertained to just two PFAS chemicals: PFOA and PFOS.
For the dozens of others in the PFAS family—including GenX, which has been a major problem in North Carolina—the EPA will be focused on collecting more research to determine if they should be regulated also, David Ross, the agency’s top water official, said.
“Our goal is to close the gap on science as quickly as possible,” he told reporters.