The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today issued new, more rigorous drinking water health advisories for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Two of these levels are drastically more stringent than previous levels and likely mean hundreds, if not thousands, of drinking water systems nationwide will be affected. The agency also announced up to $5 billion in grant funding to help communities prepare and deal with these contaminants. Here is what water sector utilities need to know.

Health Advisories

In today’s action, EPA updated two interim lifetime drinking water health advisories and finalized two others.

Most notably, the agency updated the interim lifetime drinking water health advisories for two PFAS chemicals — perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). From 2016 until today, the level for these chemicals was 70 parts per trillion (ppt). The new interim lifetime drinking water health advisories are

  • 0.004 ppt for PFOA and
  • 0.02 ppt for PFOS.

EPA also issued final lifetime drinking water health advisories for

  • GenX Chemicals (hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO) dimer acid and its ammonium salt) at 10 ppt; and
  • PFBS (perfluorobutane sulfonic acid and its related compound potassium perfluorobutane sulfonate) at 2,000 ppt.

These advisories — which are not enforceable regulations — are based on more than 400 studies. They are meant to share EPA’s latest information to help utilities begin the process of reducing public health risks. In its documents, EPA expressed that it “is committed to working with our co-regulators and impacted stakeholders on solutions to reduce public health risks.”

“EPA’s decision to reduce these health advisory levels from 70 ppt to as low as 0.004 ppt will have a significant impact on water utilities, who receive these chemicals from industry and consumers and are not generators themselves,” said WEF President Jamie Eichenberger. “We encourage EPA to continue to work towards source control to prevent these contaminants from entering our waterways in the first place and are looking forward to working with EPA to develop science-based effluent limits and drinking water standards that protect public health and the environment without placing an undue burden on our utilities and ratepayers.”

PFAS Funding Available

As part of the governmentwide effort to confront PFAS pollution, EPA also announced $1 billion USD in grant funding through President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. This funding, from the Emerging Contaminants in Small or Disadvantaged Communities Grant Program, is the first of $5 billion through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that can be used to reduce PFAS in drinking water in communities facing disproportionate impacts.

EPA has published guidance detailing eligible applicants, eligible projects, and how to apply for the funds.

The Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs) also contain an additional $3.4 billion and $3.2 billion, respectively, that also can be used to address PFAS in water.

Formal Rules in Development

Setting health advisory levels is the beginning of the scientific process to investigate these issues more thoroughly in preparation for formal rulemaking. According to EPA’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap, the agency plans to propose National Primary Drinking Water Regulations for PFOA and PFOS in Fall 2022 with the final rule coming in Fall 2023.

According to EPA, the proposal will include both a non-enforceable Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) and an enforceable standard, or Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) or Treatment Technique. MCLs consider the feasibility of treatment (lack of viable processes or excessive costs) and measurement challenges associated with contaminants.

EPA has identified a series of technologies that are known to reduce PFAS concentrations. They include activated carbon, ion exchange, and high-press membranes.

However, “the health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS are below the level of both detection (determining whether or not a substance is present) and quantitation (the ability to reliably determine how much of a substance is present),” according to EPA. The minimum reporting level for PFOA and PFOS is 4 ppt.

Engage with Your Customers

EPA is encouraging states, tribes, territories, drinking water utilities, and community leaders who have not already started to begin engaging with their communities regarding PFAS. Those entities that find PFAS in their drinking water should take steps to inform residents; undertake additional monitoring to assess the level, scope, and source of contamination; and examine steps to limit exposure.

Below are key messages to convey to customers:

  • Water facilities are not producers or users of PFAS — Water systems are receivers of these chemicals used by manufacturers and everyday consumers. Water and wastewater facilities merely convey and/or manage the traces of PFAS coming into the systems daily.
  • EPA and the water sector are working together — EPA has committed to working with state agencies and drinking water systems on solutions to reduce public health risks posed by exposure to these PFAS. This includes increasing technical assistance, especially to small and disadvantaged communities.
  • Treatment systems exist to remove PFAS — Installing technologies such as granular activated carbon, anion exchange, or high-pressure membranes, while expensive, can remove PFAS. Similar systems also can be used for private wells and as point-of-use devices in homes.

Get More Information

EPA has compiled all the resources about today’s actions on their Drinking Water Health Advisories page. Essential documents for water sector documents include

The Water Environment Federation also will be hosting a webinar on these changes on Friday, June 17. Visit www.wef.org/pfas for the latest information on all aspects of PFAS.