Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) In Drinking Water: 2019 Reca – Hydroviv

Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) In Drinking Water: 2019 Recap

Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) In Drinking Water: 2019 Recap

Analies Dyjak, M.A. | Policy Nerd 

As more and more communities around the country are detecting PFAS in their drinking water systems, residents and city officials are working to figure out how to respond. We wanted to provide an update as to what’s going on with PFAS contamination in the nations drinking water.

What Are PFAS And Why Are They Dangerous?

Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are a category of emerging contaminants and are both mobile and persistent in the environment. PFAS are found in a variety of products including Scotchguard, Teflon, firefighting foam, metal plating, heat and water repellent products, and stain resistant fabrics. Health effects associated with PFAS contaminated drinking water are becoming more widely accepted throughout regulatory bodies. According to the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, PFAS are associated with a long list of health effects including an increased risk of cancer, lowered fertility rates, increased cholesterol, and developmental issues in young children and infants. 

PFAS Action Act of 2019


Earlier this week the U.S. House of Representatives passed the most sweeping piece of PFAS legislation to date. The PFAS Action Act of 2019 is sponsored by Representative Debbie Dingel
(D-Mich). The bill is currently making its way through the legislative process and waiting on a senate vote. 

Major Takeaways: 

  1. Requiring EPA to set a national standard under the National Primary Drinking Water Standards for both PFOA and PFOS, triggering mandatory compliance by municipalities. Further, this would require cities and towns across the country water to reduce PFOA and PFOS in drinking water to levels set by EPA.
  2. Action under Superfund, also known at the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability (CERCLA).
  3. Designating all PFAS as “hazardous air pollutants” under the Clean Air Act. 
  4. Authorize funding ($500 million over five years) to help municipalities across the country comply with new PFAS laws. 
  5. The bill also puts deadlines on the EPA administrator to take action. 

Our Take:

There’s no denying that this bill has the potential to be a huge win for communities across the country. It’s sweeping scope will force states to acknowledge a problem that’s been ignored for years. However, it’s important to point out some of the things this bill will not accomplish. Like all other National Primary Drinking Water Standards, private wells are not covered under this proposed bill. This huge oversight puts millions of Americans at risk. Homeowners that have a private well are responsible for testing, monitoring, and removing any potentially harmful contaminants from their water, whereas those on “city water” rely on the municipalities water treatment capabilities. 

Additionally, it would be shortsighted not to mention the cost of removing PFAS at the municipal level. The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority in Wilmington, North Carolina spent $35.9 million for PFAS removal equipment at one of their three water treatment facilities. Even with the $500 million added to a state revolving fund, the PFAS Action Act will put a serious financial burden on municipalities.

Key Players: Department of Defense 

The Department of Defense is also leading the charge to address PFAS, which might be surprising considering they've played a large role in contributing to the problem. PFAS are a key ingredient in firefighting foam which is used frequently for training purposes on military bases. Many bases don’t rely on the public system for drinking water, but rather have their own dug wells for military families. DoD has created an inventory of bases and wells that have detected PFAS. As of August 2017, DoD identified 401 military installments that have suspected to have released PFAS. That being said, DoD has spent $200 million on investigating and mitigating these releases since the contamination has became public. 

The National Defense Authorization Act which includes the annual military budget for 2020, prohibits the Department of Defense from using PFAS-containing firefighting foam strating October 1, 2022. DoD is also funding research to come up with an alternative to PFAS. All that being said, military bases are not required to comply with federal and state drinking water standards. So even if a federal regulation were to be set, it would be under the discretion of DoD to determine how to proceed. 

PFAS Update: Is A Regulation Coming?

The short answer is no. It can take decades for EPA to regulate a contaminant under the National Primary Drinking Water Standards. For example, Chromium 6 still remains unregulated after decades of being in the regulatory funnel. Additionally, Chromium 6 was highlighted in the 2000 blockbuster film starring Julie Roberts: Erin Brockovich. Regulations take such a long time in part due to push back from chemical manufacturers and industry who produce these types of toxic contaminants. In 2018 EPA set a non-enforceable health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. An important caveat is that public health goals, guidance levels, and health advisory levels are all non-enforceable, and therefore municipal water systems do not need to comply. 

States Leading the Charge

In 2019 several states in the U.S. stepped up to tackle PFAS head on. Because there’s no federal consensus on what the standard should be, it’s at the discretion of states to determine an acceptable level in drinking water. States run into similar obstacles as the federal government when setting standards. It's important to remember that as of now right now, most state standards are non-enforceable public health goals or advisory levels. Minnesota in particular has done a great job paving the way for other states. In 2018 Minnesota settled with 3M, a major manufacturer of PFAS in an $850 million lawsuit. 

Our Take: 

The bottom line is that removing PFAS at the municipal level is expensive. Even if these regulations were enacted, communities would need to figure out how to purchase multi-million dollar equipment. This is one of the hurdles that EPA needs to overcome when developing a benefit-cost analysis... Do the benefits associated with a regulating PFAS outweigh the costs? This factor is heavily examined when a regulation is being considered. The current arsenic standard is the best example of this. EPA scientists wanted to make the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) 3 parts per billion for arsenic in drinking water, which is consistent with public health recommendations. Ultimately the agency settled on the current level of 10 parts per billion because they could not justify the cost of removing arsenic with the health benefits. 

Only a handful of communities have been able to purchase this type of expensive equipment. For example, the public utility for Wilmington, North Carolina purchased a $46 million Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) filtration system. This type of investment is not possible for most communities in the United States.  

Other Articles We Think You Might Enjoy:
What Are Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances?
Military Bases Have High Levels of PFAS
EPA Admits GenX Linked To Cancer

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  • Analies Dyjak