EPA sets first-ever limits on ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water, but they shouldn’t affect Quincy


Environmental Protection Agency officials say strict limits on "forever chamicals" will reduce exposure for 100 million people and help prevent thousands of illnesses, including cancers. | pexels.com

QUINCY — The Biden administration on Wednesday finalized strict limits on certain so-called “forever chemicals” in drinking water that will require utilities to reduce them to the lowest level they can be reliably measured. Officials say this will reduce exposure for 100 million people and help prevent thousands of illnesses, including cancers.

However, these limits should have little effect on Quincy’s drinking water.

The rule is the first national drinking water limit on toxic PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), which are widespread and long-lasting in the environment.

Director of Public Works Jeffrey Conte said Wednesday the city’s drinking water is well below the limits on PFAS that have been established as acceptable.

“So unless the source changes, unless the (Mississippi) river changes, we don’t have to add any additional treatment,” Conte said. “I’m not saying it can’t change, because it’s a river and who knows what people upstream could end up dumping into the river. But at present, we don’t have any we don’t have any violations.”

The Associated Press reported that health advocates across the nation praised the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for not backing away from tough limits the agency proposed last year. But water utilities took issue with the rule, saying treatment systems are expensive to install and customers will end up paying more for water.

Water providers are entering a new era with significant additional health standards that the EPA says will make tap water safer for millions of consumers — a Biden administration priority. Utility groups warn the rules will cost tens of billions of dollars each and fall hardest on small communities with fewer resources.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan told the Associated Press the rule is the most important action the EPA has ever taken on PFAS.

“The result is a comprehensive and life-changing rule, one that will improve the health and vitality of so many communities across our country,” he said.

PFAS chemicals are hazardous because they don’t degrade in the environment and are linked to health issues such as low birth weight and liver disease, along with certain cancers. The EPA estimates the rule will cost about $1.5 billion to implement each year, but doing so will prevent nearly 10,000 deaths over decades and significantly reduce serious illnesses.

PFAS is a broad family of chemical substances, and the new rule sets strict limits on two common types — called PFOA and PFOS — at 4 parts per trillion. Water providers will have to test for these PFAS chemicals and tell the public when levels are too high. Combinations of some PFAS types will be limited, too.

PFAS is used in nonstick pans, firefighting foam and waterproof clothing.

Conte says PFOA and PFOS have been found at detectable levels occasionally in Quincy’s water supply. However, during the last couple of years, they have been below the 4.0 parts per trillion limits.

“(The EPA doesn’t) just take one sample, because one sample can be very misleading,” Conte said. “For an annual average, we’ve never been close to it. You’ve got to understand that four parts per trillion is just, I mean, I can’t even wrap my head around how diluted that is.

“The procedure that you need to go through to actually grab the sample without contaminating it is you have to launder your clothes three or four times, and you can’t use any like dryer sheets — which are full of PFAS. What’s on your clothing could get on your hand and then get transferred into the bottle, and that would be enough to put you over (the EPA limit). Just to understand the level of minuteness of these compounds, it’s just mind-boggling.”

Over the last year, the EPA has periodically released batches of utility test results for PFAS in drinking water. Roughly 16 percent of utilities found at least one of the two strictly limited PFAS chemicals at or above the new limits. These utilities serve tens of millions of people. The Biden administration, however, expects about 6-10 percent of water systems to exceed the new limits.

Water providers will generally have three years to do testing. If those tests exceed the limits, they’ll have two more years to install treatment systems, according to EPA officials.

For some communities, test results were a surprise. A utility outside Philadelphia that serves nearly 9,000 people learned last June that one of its wells had a PFOA level of 235 parts per trillion, among the highest results in the country at the time.

Less than a decade ago, the EPA issued a health advisory that PFOA and PFOS levels combined shouldn’t exceed 70 parts per trillion. Now, the agency says almost no amount is safe.

Associated Press data journalist Camille Fassett in San Francisco and reporter Matthew Daly in Washington D.C. contributed to this story.

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