The Environmental Protection Agency is updating its guidance on chemicals found in the drinking water of communities around the country that can lead to cancer and other negative health effects.

The interim updated health advisory addresses two of the most studied PFAS and announced that “some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) or perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) in water that are near zero and below EPA’s ability to detect at this time.”

What You Need To Know

  • The EPA issued an interim health advisory regarding PFOA and PFOS

  • Negative health effects can be found water with hard to detect amounts of PFOA and PFOS

  • The move comes as it prepares to issue a PFAS National Drinking Water Regulation this fall

PFAS are dubbed “forever chemicals” because they don’t naturally break down in the environment. Because of their prevalence in industry and consumer products for decades, the EPA says most people have been exposed to PFAS at some point, but it has some negative health effects in high concentrations and/or long periods of exposure.

In its previous advisory from 2016, the EPA stated that levels of PFOA and PFOS that were at least 70 parts per trillion (ppt) or below were deemed safe. One part per trillion is equivalent to a grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. 

The updated interim health advisory now states that the minimum reporting level for both PFOA and PFOS is now 4 ppt. Health advisories are non-enforceable and non-regulatory, but exist to “provide information on contaminants that can cause health effects and are known or expected to occur in drinking water,” according to the EPA.

Stel Bailey, an advocate for clean drinking water in Brevard County and the founder of Fight for Zero, was one of dozens of people present at the Third National PFAS Conference in Wilmington, N.C., when the EPA made its announcement. 

“In the beginning of this, we were criticized and dismissed and told things were safe and normal and nobody really wanted to listen to us,” Bailey said. “So, to get that confirmation that all of this work wasn’t nothing, it brings hope to communities, like ours, and advocates across the nation that we need to continue in this work to fight for zero chemicals in our waterways that are harmful to human health.”

The EPA noted that this wasn’t a final advisory, but a stepping stone. A PFAS National Drinking Water Regulation will be proposed this fall.

“The EPA’s work to identify and confront the risks that PFAS pose to human health and the environment is a key component in the Biden-Harris Administration whole-of-government approach to confronting these emerging contaminants,” the EPA said in a statement. “This strategy includes steps by the Food and Drug Administration to increase testing for PFAS in food and packaging, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help dairy farmers address contamination of livestock, and by the Department of Defense to clean-up contaminated military installations and the elimination of unnecessary PFAS uses.”

This update not only addressed PFOA and PFOS on an interim basis but also issued a final health advisory on two other types of PFAS: perfluorobutane sulfonic acid and its potassium salt (PFBS) and for hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO) dimer acid and its ammonium salt (“GenX” chemicals). 

According to the EPA, GenX chemicals are used as a replacement for PFOA and PFBS are used to replace PFOS. It states that the minimum reporting level for GenX chemicals is 5 ppt and 3 ppt for PFBS. 

A health advisory would come into play for GenX chemicals at 10 ppt in drinking water and 2,000 ppt for PFBS. 

With the new updates, the EPA states analytical methods can still detect GenX chemicals and PFBS at the current health advisory levels, but not PFOA and PFOS. Therefore, it recommends that “if water systems detect PFOA and PFOS, they take steps such as informing residents, undertaking monitoring and examining steps to limit exposure.”

What’s being done?

Back in February 2019, the EPA released its PFAS Action Plan, which by Oct. 18, 2021 became the PFAS Strategic Roadmap, which offered “a whole-of-agency approach to addressing PFAS.”

Part of the federal government’s response to the increasing understanding about the impact of PFAS is to use some of the money set aside in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help communities around the country tackle PFAS contamination. 

The law earmarks $5 billion for this, with the first $1 billion now available through grant funding. The EPA will reach out to states regarding how to submit their letters of intent, which are due by Aug. 15, 2022.

As of June 24, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) said it had not yet received more details from the EPA on the funds.

States were also provided $3.4 billion in funds through the Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs) and $3.2 billion via the Clean Water SRFs.

From those pools of money, Florida received $275,404,000. This amount came from five different funds or programs. 

Florida’s response to PFAS

Prior to the federal action plan, in 2018, FDEP began working with the University of Florida Center for Environment and Human Toxicology “to develop and update the provisional cleanup target levels (CTLs) and screening levels for irrigation and surface water.” 

They have targeted assessment work in three areas of their Waste Cleanup Program: fire training facilities, dry cleaners and state-funded cleanup sites. 

An FDEP spokesperson told Spectrum News that even when there is no viable party connected with the PFAS contamination, they can begin cleanup work. 

In March of this year, FDEP published a PFAS Dynamic Plan with the following stated objectives:

  • Continue to be a national leader in response to PFAS concerns and to protect Florida’s communities from PFAS exposure.
  • Provide a technical and regulatory framework for the development of screening and cleanup target levels for protecting human health and the environment. 
  • Implement a response strategy that minimizes risks to human health and protects Florida’s natural resources.
  • Identify PFAS contamination through site investigations. 
  • Continue efforts to prevent/reduce further effects through outreach and communication.
  • Continue efforts to identify areas of potential or known contamination and address environmental impacts through risk mitigation and remediation. 

Most recently, the Florida Legislature passed HB 1475, which Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law on June 20. 

It states that if the EPA “has not finalized its standards for PFAS in drinking water, groundwater and soil by January 1, 2025, the department (FDEP) shall adopt by rule statewide cleanup target levels for PFAS… with priority given to PFOA and PFOS.”

Those prospective new rules wouldn’t take effect until they are ratified by the legislature.

“I think that was a step in the right direction. If we keep going in that direction, and we keep following the science, I think we have hope in this state for cleaning up these chemicals,” Bailey said.