EPA, lawmakers inch toward limit on toxic chemical leaching into drinking water

How the federal government plans to do more to keep potentially deadly chemicals from slipping through regulatory cracks.
Published: Nov. 17, 2021 at 12:32 PM EST
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - The infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden earlier this week contains billions of dollars to cleanup a dangerous chemical in drinking water across this country. But, the federal government’s struggle with how to prevent forever chemical contamination in the first place isn’t over just yet.

There’s been a slow drip of regulation over the last twenty years, as the EPA tries to contain a class of deadly chemicals linked to cancer. Health studies find 95% of Americans have PFAS in their bloodstream, but there’s no national, enforceable standard for what level of exposure can be considered safe.

The slow pace of progress frustrates lawmakers like Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.).

“I want a level we can use as a standard nationally,” she said in a recent interview, “And we can be sure that our children and grandchildren are not going to be having any ill effects from drinking [from] their own water systems.”

The Biden administration promises just that, outlining steps leading to a better flow of resources for cleanup and forcing polluters to cover the bill.

Contamination is largely the byproduct of Teflon manufacturing and a foam used to fight jet fuel fires but the chemical can even be found in food packaging at low levels. Under the government’s timeline, a true legal limit is still years away, set to arrive around fall 2023.

“Believe it or not, that’s pretty much light-speed for this regulation,” said Gina McCarthy, the White House National Climate Advisor and former administrator of the EPA.

McCarthy said there’s strong health science surrounding PFOS and PFOA but not for hundreds of chemical cousins in the PFAS family.

“We have to do the analytic work,” she said.

Rather than regulating every PFAS chemical on its own, following extensive study, the EPA plans to sort them into groups based on danger and cost of cleanup.

That, experts said, will make it tougher for newly-developed formulas to sidestep regulation and identify where the invisible threat is greatest. Once regulations are in place, action could follow swiftly.

“We jump on those quickly, effectively and broadly,” McCarthy said.

Lawmakers said they’re anxious to see progress.

“Hopefully we can get [research and new regulation] sooner than the dates they set out,” Capito said.

Members on both sides of the aisle support following the science but are also considering passing their own legal standards out of concern the country cannot afford to keep waiting. Several states have implemented their own limits on some PFAS compounds.

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