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Proposed federal PFAS drinking water standards are stricter than Maine’s

There are a number of initiatives in the works to address PFAS in drinking water.
AFP via Getty Images
There are a number of initiatives in the works to address PFAS in drinking water.

Federal environmental regulators are proposing new drinking water standards for the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS that would be even more stringent than health limits set by the state of Maine several years ago.

In an announcement on Tuesday that was years in the making, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed requiring public water systems across the country to test for PFAS for the first time. Under the proposal, drinking water can contain no more than 4 parts per trillion of two types of the chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, that are no longer used in U.S. manufacturing but remain persistent in the environment. Additionally, the EPA wants to set limits for a mixture of four other types of PFAS.

“Communities across this country have suffered far too long from the ever-present threat of PFAS pollution,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “That’s why President Biden launched a whole-of-government approach to aggressively confront these harmful chemicals, and EPA is leading the way forward. EPA’s proposal to establish a national standard for PFAS in drinking water is informed by the best available science, and would help provide states with the guidance they need to make decisions that best protect their communities.”

Maine has been at the leading edge nationally of responding to and regulating PFAS, which is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS are a class of chemicals that have been used for decades in countless products – including nonstick cookware, waterproof fabrics, firefighting foam, medical equipment and even cosmetics and dental floss. But some compounds have been linked to serious health concerns, including cancer, kidney disease, low birth weight and high cholesterol.

In the absence of federal contamination limits, Maine ordered all public water systems as well as schools and other community assets that rely on private wells to begin testing for PFAS last year.

The state set a limit of 20 parts per trillion for six types of PFAS – including PFOA and PFOS – either individually or combined. As a result, some school districts around the state have been installing filtration systems or bringing in bottled water after tests revealed levels above 20 parts per trillion. The state is also paying to install hundreds of filtration systems in private homes around the state, tied to a growing problem of agricultural PFAS pollution caused by the use of municipal sludge as fertilizer.

But the EPA’s proposal would be even more restrictive. For example, Maine only requires water systems to treat or use alternative sources if the combination of PFOS and PFOA exceeded 20 parts per trillion. Under the federal proposal, that requirement would kick in at 4 parts per trillion for either compound.

"And that is very much on a magnitude more protective than what Maine currently has for a standards,” said Sarah Woodbury, director of advocacy for the Maine-based group Defend Our Health, which has been heavily involved in efforts to increase regulation of PFAS in Maine and nationally. “It's so much lower, which is fabulous and will go a long way to helping protect people both on residential wells and public water systems better from PFAS contamination.”

Jackie Farwell, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, pointed to Maine’s leadership on the PFAS issue and the fact that Gov. Janet Mills and lawmakers have committed more than $100 million to the problem in recent years. She pointed out that the EPA uses a different methodology in its proposal, which could go into effect in late-2023 or early-2024.

“Public water systems do not need to comply with the draft rule at this time and the Maine CDC Drinking Water Program will continue to provide technical and/or financial assistance to public water systems with any level of PFAS present,” Farwell said. “Maine CDC will evaluate the federal proposed national drinking water standards as it works to promulgate rules to establish a permanent drinking water standard by June 1, 2024.”

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, praised the EPA’s decision. Pingree is chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee’s Interior Subcommittee, which oversees funding for the EPA.

“Addressing PFAS contamination has been a top priority of mine for years, and I’m thrilled to see the Biden Administration take this important step forward to limit forever chemicals in our drinking water,” Pingree said in a statement. “PFAS chemicals are persistent and toxic, posing serious health risks to all Americans.”

Other environmental organizations also cheered the federal action.

“Today’s announcement by the EPA is historic progress,” Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement. “More than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their tap water. Americans have been drinking contaminated water for decades. This proposal is a critical step toward getting these toxic poisons out of our water.”

But the American Chemistry Council, a trade organization that represents PFAS manufacturers, called the proposal “misguided” and said that “all PFAS are not the same and they should not all be regulated in the same way.”

“The EPA’s misguided approach to these MCLs is important, as these low limits will likely result in billions of dollars in compliance costs,” the organization said in a statement. “The proposals have important implications for broader drinking water policy priorities and resources, so it’s critical that EPA gets the science right. We look forward to reviewing these proposals in detail and commenting to EPA throughout the process.”