The Environmental Protection Agency unveiled unprecedented new limits on the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS as a way to tackle what some experts argue is potentially dangerous drinking water contamination.
But it will take up to three years for the rules to take full effect.
That can leave homeowners who rely on tap water for drinking, cooking, toothbrushing and bathing to wonder what steps they might take right now to learn more about these chemicals and if Americans choose, take action to cut down on exposure.
The EPA’s new rules will require near-zero levels of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, part of a classification of chemicals known as PFAS. That’s a much higher bar than previous regulation. Exposure to some of the chemicals has been linked to cancer, liver damage, fertility and thyroid problems, as well as asthma and other health effects. By at least one measure, PFAS at some level have been found in the bloodstream of 98% of Americans.
In fact, PFAS, also dubbed “forever chemicals,” are ubiquitous in modern lifestyles. They’re part of the manufacturing of everything from stain-resistant and waterproof clothing to cookware, dental floss and toilet paper. And they make their way into soil, groundwater and bodies of water, eventually into drinking water.
The EPA proposal, which faces a 60-day comment period and if implemented will be fully regulated in three years, targets six types of PFAS: PFOA, PFOS, GenX, PFBS, PFNA and PFHxS. You can read more about these chemicals on the EPA’s website.
“After decades of delay, President Biden’s EPA has delivered a drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS which, when finalized, will be the toughest in the nation. By proposing to regulate four other PFAS as a mixture, the EPA is also putting our communities ahead of the polluters,” said actor and activist Mark Ruffalo, who has worked on the issue.
Already, some manufacturers, including 3M Co. MMM,
While households and businesses wait for both companies and government agencies to move forward, they can take some steps on their own to learn more or take action.
Why should households care about these chemicals that have existed for decades?
It’s true that government rules have previously allowed for higher, “allowable” levels of chemicals in water, but research is evolving all the time.
Last year, the EPA found the chemicals could cause harm at levels “much lower than previously understood” and that almost no level of exposure was safe. It advised that drinking water contain no more than 0.004 parts per trillion of perfluorooctanoic acid and 0.02 parts per trillion of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, the two chemicals among the six given the highest priority. Previously, the agency had advised that drinking water contain no more than 70 parts per trillion of the chemicals.
Made from a chain of carbon and fluorine atoms that do not easily degrade in the environment, PFAS have earned their “forever chemicals” moniker.
And due to their long half life in the human body, it can take some PFAS years to completely leave the body, according to a 2022 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
People in “vulnerable life stages” such as fetal development in pregnancy, early childhood and old age, are at even higher risk, the report said. So are firefighters, workers in fluorochemical manufacturing plants, and those who live near commercial airports, military bases, landfills, incinerators, wastewater treatment plants and farms.
Use your ZIP to check your PFAS exposure
Researchers at the advocacy nonprofit Environmental Working Group supply a database that is searchable by ZIP Code or by using a clickable national map to determine the chemical evidence in utility-provided water.
By community, a user can see how many homes a given water utility services and whether there have been reports of contamination.
How to check for ‘forever chemicals’ when you have a well
Granted, not all water utilities currently test for pollutants.
And, other households not on a municipal system may rely on private wells for water. Anyone who wants to test their water can purchase a kit online or from a certified lab, EWG advises.
Kits generally use either test strips submerged into a water sample or drops that react with various contaminants if present, and they cost around $20 on average.
Other testing kits require you to mail a submission into a laboratory. While these lab tests are usually the most comprehensive, they’re also the most expensive, says home-improvement site The Spruce.
The Spruce has tested several kits and offers its reviews.
Best filters for drinking water
EWG has research on the best available — including most-effective-for-the-cost — water filters that homeowners might opt for to turn tap water into desirable drinking water.
Top of the list is a reverse osmosis system combined with a carbon filter, which EWG says is most effective at removing water contaminants. But these can cost $200 and up. EWG has other suggestions, broken down by method, cost and effectiveness, as well as the differences to consider depending on whether hard or soft water is flowing through the tap.
Keep in mind, carbon filters are typically replaced every six months. A more-expensive, but more-comprehensive, reverse osmosis filter requires replacement every five years, spreading out its cost.
As a bonus, high-quality filters can sift out other contaminants in water which can impact its taste.