Clean Water Current

EPA Releases Four Stringent Health Advisories for PFAS in Drinking Water; NACWA to Help Prepare Members for Any Questions

Jun 15, 2022

Today, the EPA issued a prepublication notice establishing final drinking water health advisories for two PFAS chemicals, GenX and PFBS, and setting interim advisories that significantly lower the existing health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS. The final lifetime health advisory levels for GenX and PFBS are 10 parts per trillion (ppt) and 2,000 ppt, respectively. The interim lifetime health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS are 4 parts per quadrillion (ppq or 0.004 ppt) and 20 ppq (or 0.02 ppt), respectively. Currently, these health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS are below the analytical levels of detection and quantification.

EPA indicates it is issuing these updated interim health advisories for PFOA and PFOS based on new scientific information and analyses on the potential health effects of these chemicals. These analyses are undergoing Science Advisory Board (SAB) review; however, EPA is acting now to protect public health based on this new information. The interim health advisories could be updated or removed based on future best available science; however, the drinking water health advisories and subsequent Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLGs) will likely remain below the detection limit, raising questions about implementation.

NACWA participated in a call with EPA and national water associations yesterday to preview the new Advisories. Regulatory Director Emily Remmel was also quoted in USA Today’s coverage this morning, pointing to the need for source control and sound science to address concerns with PFAS.

Drinking water health advisories are non-enforceable and not regulatory in nature; they are intended to provide technical information to drinking water system operators and inform future regulatory policies (e.g., MCLGs, human health water quality criteria). It is also important to note that these newly released levels are lifetime health advisory levels, calculated to protect the most sensitive populations through all life stages from exposure throughout their lives. Regardless, the release of these advisories and the eye-popping drop in the advisory levels for PFOS and PFOA are likely to raise many questions from the public and the media about the dangers of PFAS in water and raise questions of what this means for clean water agencies alongside drinking water systems.

Clean and drinking water utilities are seeing the challenges that PFAS pose for risk communication, and this announcement may further cloud the issue. The focus on water systems’ role in addressing PFAS substances may also distract from the need for source control and polluter-pays approaches to dealing with these concerning health threats.

EPA, in its press release, noted it is delivering the first $1 billion allotment of $5 billion of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) grant funding for drinking water utilities to address PFAS and other emerging contaminants. These funds are separate from another $1 billion that will be allotted to clean water utilities for PFAS and emerging contaminants. While this money is significant, the costs to address PFAS from a municipal scale will be much steeper.

Over the last six years, the 2016 drinking water health advisories for PFOA and PFOS (which were set at 70 ppt combined), largely established a threshold concentration for environmental media that utilities could use as a benchmark and to compare their monitoring data. The new levels released by EPA today significantly change that benchmark even if they are below the levels of detection and quantification. While these health advisories primarily impact drinking water utilities now, the values will definitely have an impact on the clean water community sooner rather than later. These new values will be used to inform EPA’s development of recommended human health water quality criteria and its biosolids problem formulation risk assessment, both of which are underway.

Members should be prepared to receive questions from press and their community on EPA’s new health advisories and how they are proactively responding. EPA has published a fact sheet to help public water systems tackle these questions, which may also help the clean water community. EPA has also published a fact sheet for the public and a FAQ page with helpful information.

NACWA is developing helpful resources for members to use in addressing the PFAS challenge with their own policymakers and ratepayers. NACWA will also continue its strong advocacy with Congress and with EPA regarding PFAS. If members have questions, please contact Emily Remmel, Director of Regulatory Affairs, at 202/533-1839.

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