Introduction and summary
In 2014, residents of Flint, Michigan—a largely Black community1 north of Detroit—began to see “foul-smelling, discolored, and off-tasting”2 water come out of their pipes after the local government switched the city’s water supply to the Flint River. It was obvious that residents’ water for drinking, cooking, and bathing had become dangerous, but government officials ignored their complaints for more than 18 months, continuing to insist the water was safe, in what the Michigan Civil Rights Commission has called “the ongoing effects of ‘systemic racism.’”3 Eventually, as a result of local activism, the residents were able to win major settlements that forced the government to supply bottled water, replace the lead pipes that were polluting the water, and provide health services to help residents deal with the ongoing health impacts of lead poisoning.4 Since that incident, addressing contaminated water has been top of mind for many public officials, but unfortunately, not all dangerous drinking water is as obvious as the discolored water in Flint.
For years, the federal government has failed to regulate the levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), otherwise known as forever chemicals, in drinking water. People cannot taste, smell, or see this family of manufactured chemicals in drinking water, which used to be ubiquitous in the production of products such as nonstick pans and waterproof clothing.5 Some traditional PFAS have been phased out in the United States, but many remain in use, and they are extremely resistant to breaking down.6 Over the years, they have built up in the environment—including in soil, lakes, rivers, and air—and as a result, in humans and animals.7
In March 2023, the Biden administration took a critical step to protect Americans from PFAS by proposing the creation of a new National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) for six types of forever chemicals. This regulation would establish a legally enforceable limit on these chemicals in drinking water, requiring public water systems to monitor and, if necessary, reduce chemical levels8 as they do for other dangerous contaminants such as infectious disease-causing pathogens, heavy metals, and radioactive particles.9 As the Biden administration proposes this new standard, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is beginning to roll out billions of dollars in funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) to help states and communities invest in and improve their drinking water systems.
The EPA will regulate 6 forever chemicals
The Biden administration’s proposed National Primary Drinking Water Regulation would protect Americans from six types of forever chemicals: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA); perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS); perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA); hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (HFPO-DA, commonly known as GenX chemicals); perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS); and perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS).10 These specific compounds, including the legacy chemicals PFOA and PFOS, are particularly well-studied11 and known to be dangerous if ingested, even at low levels.12
These forever chemicals are long lasting and dangerous to human health, and low-income households and communities of color are disproportionately exposed to them. While there have been state-level responses to forever chemicals, a patchwork of varyingly stringent regulations against these dangerous chemicals is not enough to protect communities from long-term health impacts. Currently, there is both the political will and the funding needed to effectively and efficiently improve access to safe drinking water for all Americans—an opportunity that the Biden administration should not pass up. The EPA, which is expected to finalize the NPDWR in late 2023, should implement the regulations as proposed and thereby institute a stringent U.S. standard against these dangerous chemicals.
Forever chemicals are ubiquitous, with numerous opportunities for human exposure
The chemical properties that make PFAS—which have been in use since the 1950s13—so popular in manufacturing also make them especially dangerous for humans and prevalent in the environment. Their unique chemical composition—a carbon-fluorine bond—gives them a special ability to repel water, oil, and grease.14 It also makes them resistant to breakdown to such a degree that they can linger in the environment on “geologic time scales.”15
Forever chemicals enter the water supply through four major channels: industrial sites, fire response and response training sites, landfills, and wastewater treatment centers.16
All 50 states have PFAS-contaminated sites
PFAS-contaminated sites can be found across the United States, from coast to coast and beyond.17 They affect an estimated 200 million residents:18
- In Massachusetts, forever chemicals are continuing to leach into drinking water from a fire training site at Joint Base Cape Cod, decades after training took place.19
- At least 49 farms in Maine have been contaminated by PFAS from fertilizer composed of sewage sludge—contamination that has driven generational farms out of business.20
- Tests at the Bofors Nobel EPA Superfund site in Egleston Township, Michigan, where detergents, herbicides, and pesticides were produced until 1976, recently showed elevated levels of PFAS.21
- A recent study of PFAS in Texas found that since 2013, oil and gas companies have used more than 21 tons of PFAS in the hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells in the state.22
- 59 closed landfills in 41 Minnesota counties have detected PFAS levels that exceed state health guidelines, including the Gofer Landfill, where PFAS levels in groundwater are 1,343 times the state health risk guidelines.23
When products containing these chemicals are used or exposed to air, water, or the soil at these sites, PFAS end up in the environment and stay there for a long time.24 Studies have shown that many forever chemicals can be easily transported long distances via the water system, and some more volatile chemicals can even be carried thousands of miles in the air—meaning that soil and water sources far away from the original contamination site can be affected by PFAS exposure.25
After nearly 70 years of widespread use, PFAS can be found virtually everywhere in the environment. Forever chemicals are present in almost all types of bodies of water, including groundwater, surface water, and even the deep ocean.26 Once the chemicals are in the water supply and environment, there are a multitude of ways for humans to ingest them. According to the EPA, people can be exposed to forever chemicals by drinking contaminated water directly, eating food—such as fish—contaminated by PFAS, or breathing contaminated air.27
Because forever chemicals are used so widely, can persist for so long in the environment, and have many opportunities for exposure to humans, it is not surprising that nearly all Americans have forever chemicals in their blood. According to a 2015 report published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, an astonishing 97 percent of Americans have at least some forever chemicals in their blood.28 There are some indications that the blood levels of common forever chemicals in people are declining, but the CDC notes that as older chemicals are phased out and replaced by new compounds, people may be exposed to other PFAS for which the CDC is not currently testing.29
Buildup of forever chemicals in people can cause serious health concerns, especially for pregnant women, children, and low-income communities and communities of color
There are many challenges associated with studying the health effects of forever chemicals. The types of PFAS in use have shifted over time,30 and it is likely that different PFAS have different impacts on health.31 Additionally, humans typically are not exposed to a single type of PFAS, which can make it difficult to attribute negative health outcomes to a specific chemical.32 That being said, current scientific research does suggest that exposure to high levels of forever chemicals can lead to serious health problems.33
Because forever chemicals are an emerging contaminant—a designation34 used by the EPA and state governments to classify pollutants that have been identified more recently and are the subject of ongoing research—studies are currently assessing their impacts on human health,35 including studies examining 1) how different levels of PFAS exposure can lead to different health outcomes; and 2) the impact of low levels of exposure to PFAS over long periods of time.36 The latter area of research is especially important to understand the dangers of forever chemical exposure for children. A few studies examining these topics using lab animals have found that forever chemicals can have negative impacts as animals get older, including damage to liver and thyroid function and immune response and increased kidney and liver weight.37
A National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine review of the existing science on the health impacts of forever chemicals found, among other things, an association between PFAS exposure and negative impacts to the human immune system, heart health, reproductive system, and childhood development, as well as increased risk of cancer. Specifically, the committee conducting the review found there was sufficient evidence to link exposure to PFAS with decreased antibody response to disease in both adults and children, high cholesterol in adults and children, decreased fetal and infant growth, and increased risk of kidney cancer in adults.38 The same report also found that there was some evidence to suggest PFAS can be linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease and dysfunction, inflammatory bowel disease, and pregnancy-induced high blood pressure in adults.39
Forever chemicals, like other environmental hazards, may pose a greater risk to children due to their unique activity patterns and physiology. Because children crawl and play close to the ground; often put toys, their hands, and other items in their mouths; and eat, drink, and breathe more relative to their body mass than adults do, they can more frequently come into contact with toxins.40 It is possible for children to be exposed to PFAS in utero during pregnancy, and breast milk from mothers with PFAS in their blood, as well as formula mixed with PFAS-contaminated water, can also expose infants to these dangerous chemicals.41 Once exposed, children have weaker natural defense systems, due to their more permeable blood-brain barriers; highly permeable skin; and still-developing digestive system, metabolic pathways, and vital organs.42 Research in this area is ongoing, but it is clear that PFAS pose a serious threat to young children.
Although more research is needed to understand the dangers that forever chemicals pose to human health, existing research makes clear that PFAS are dangerous and that limiting their prevalence in drinking water is an important step to safeguard public health. This is especially true for communities of color and low-income communities. A 2019 report published by the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists found that across the United States, low-income communities, communities of color, and Indigenous communities are far more likely to live near PFAS-contaminated areas.43 According to the study, which used data collected by Northeastern University from nonmilitary sites across the United States, 38,962 more low-income households and 294,591 more people of color live within five miles of a PFAS-contaminated site—sites ranging from airports, industrial sites, or wastewater treatment plants known to be contaminated with PFAS44—than expected based on U.S. Census Bureau data.
The same trends bear out at the state level, though few states have undertaken wide-scale testing for forever chemicals in the water. In Michigan, people of color and low-income households disproportionately live within five miles of a PFAS-contaminated site.45 Another study conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council of forever chemicals in California’s drinking water found that of the 77 percent of disadvantaged communities with water testing capabilities, 69 percent had water contaminated by PFAS.46 Unfortunately, the full extent to which all Americans, but especially people of color and low-income communities, are exposed to PFAS is unknown at this time. There are thousands of public drinking-water systems across the country not being tested regularly for PFAS,47 and there is no nationwide tracking system dedicated to tracking the proliferation of forever chemicals or their impact on disadvantaged communities.48 In 2022, based on data from Massachusetts and New Jersey, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) uncovered “a substantial relationship between PFAS occurrence and communities’ demographic characteristics, but the relationship differed by state.” Based on these findings, the U.S. GAO urged the EPA to collect new data to determine the extent to which disadvantaged communities are exposed to PFAS.49
PFAS pose a financial burden to the economy as well. In Maine, the use of contaminated fertilizer in the form of wastewater sludge has led to PFAS leaching into farm fields and well water. Farmers have had to abandon their fields and have lost their livelihoods. In a state where 40 percent of residents rely on private groundwater wells for their household water supply, contaminated fertilizer has contributed to more than 500 wells with PFAS levels that exceed state standards for safe drinking water.50 The state also is issuing warnings about consumption of contaminated fish and deer in certain areas.51
Greater research is needed to understand the specific human health concerns associated with forever chemicals and the extent to which this burden is unduly placed on low-income households and people of color, but it is clear from the existing research that forever chemicals pose a dangerous threat. The fact that data are limited, however, should not be used to stall regulation of these harmful chemicals—a harm that many states have long recognized and that the federal government is now addressing.
Federal action is needed above and beyond state approaches to protect public health
Since 2018, many states across the country have passed laws and instituted regulations to protect their communities against forever chemicals. Using a variety of approaches—including restricting use of PFAS in consumer products and fire-fighting foam, regulating the allowable levels of forever chemicals in drinking water, allocating funds to clean up contaminated sites, and even suing PFAS manufacturers and the federal government—states have stepped in to counteract federal inaction.52 While critical to protecting communities from the dangers of PFAS, these limits vary widely by state, and not all limits are legally enforceable. The result is a patchwork defense system against PFAS, with variable levels of protection depending on the state.
Some states, including Michigan,53 New Jersey,54 and Pennsylvania,55 have legally enforceable limits on forever chemicals in their drinking water. These states have set either maximum contaminant levels—a regulation that sets an upper limit on how much PFAS can be present in drinking water—or action levels, regulations that require states to act to reduce PFAS in the drinking water once a certain level of contamination is reached.56 However, states vary widely regarding which specific forever chemicals they regulate and the permitted levels. Other states have passed laws creating nonenforceable limits on forever chemicals. California requires the local government to notify citizens when levels of certain PFAS in the drinking water pass a specific threshold,57 while states such as North Carolina have set “health goals” in an attempt to keep contamination levels low.58
Given what is already known about the dangers that forever chemicals present to public health and the possible impacts that have not yet been studied or observed, a piecemeal approach—especially one that includes nonenforceable legal limits—is insufficient to safeguard public health. A federal approach is needed. The EPA’s proposal, which requires states to limit forever chemicals and provides them with the means to do so, is a welcome action.
The EPA is proposing to limit forever chemicals by 1) establishing health-based, nonenforceable maximum contaminant level goals (MCLGs) for the six PFAS mentioned above; and 2) setting legally enforceable maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) as close as is feasible to the MCLGs. According to the EPA, “MCLGs are the maximum level of a contaminant in drinking water where there are no known or anticipated negative health effects allowing for a margin of safety.”59 The EPA has proposed to place caps on PFOA and PFOS, as well as to regulate four other PFAS—GenX chemicals, PFBS, PFHxS, and PFNA—as a mixture, which means that public drinking water systems will test for each compound individually but assess their risk to public health in combination with one another.60
To enforce these levels, the rule would require public water systems to monitor for these forever chemicals, notify the public about the levels, and reduce the levels if they exceed the proposed standards.61 Critically, these standards are more stringent than any existing state regulation and would lead to far fewer forever chemicals in drinking water, even in states that have taken action against PFAS.
The EPA acknowledges that bringing into compliance the nearly 66,000 water systems that would be subject to regulation will not be cheap, especially for the 5 percent to 10 percent it anticipates will exceed one or more MCL.62 According to EPA estimates, implementing this rule will cost public water systems omewhere from $772 million to $1.2 billion annually, but these costs are exceeded by the annual savings that the rule will generate in terms of avoided adverse health effects, which range from $908 million to $1.23 billion.63 Between the monetary benefits and the incalculable benefits to human welfare, the EPA has concluded that the costs of the rule are justified.64
The Biden administration is rolling out funding to upgrade drinking water systems
Thanks to the IIJA, passed and signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2021, states and communities will be able to access funds specifically designated to help them monitor and remove forever chemicals and other emerging contaminants from the drinking water supply. State and local governments can use a number of technologies to remove forever chemicals from the water, including activated carbon treatments, ion exchange resins, nanofiltration, and reverse osmosis.65 Governments can receive assistance to help pay for these upgrades and new technology via two main channels: 1) $4 billion provided by the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) to address PFAS and emerging contaminants; and 2) $5 billion provided by the EPA’s Emerging Contaminants in Small or Disadvantaged Communities grant program.
Any drinking water system can apply for DWSRF PFAS-specific funding and use the grant for technology upgrades and technical training. Established in 1996 by amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act,66 the DWSRF supplies grants from the EPA to all 50 states and Puerto Rico, which in turn operate their own DWSRFs and can provide low-interest loans and other financial assistance to water systems or set aside funds to help communities build technical, managerial, or financial capacity.67 The $4 billion in federal DWSRF funding will allow local water systems to upgrade or expand equipment and technology that removes forever chemicals from the water, improve or add new monitoring technology, and train system operators.68 The program, which does not require states to provide matching funds to receive a grant, allows states great flexibility in fund allocation as long as the primary focus is forever chemicals and 25 percent of the funds are dedicated to state-defined disadvantaged communities or to public water systems serving fewer than 25,000 people.69
DWSRF success story spotlight: Removing forever chemicals from the drinking water in Litchfield, New Hampshire
In 2016, testing of private wells located near a plastics manufacturing site in Litchfield, New Hampshire, revealed high levels of PFOA contamination—one of the six noted forever chemicals.70 Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics—a corporation that had previously emitted PFOA from its nearby facility—funded the expansion of the water system, Pennichuck East Utility (PEU), to nearly 400 new customers in Litchfield and dramatically increased demand on the system.71 In response, PEU used more than $2.4 million in DWSRF funds to improve its supply capacity by interconnecting two previously separate systems and constructing new mains.72 Construction on the project began in April 2018 and was completed later that year.73
The Emerging Contaminants in Small or Disadvantaged Communities (EC-SDC) grant program specifically helps those communities overburdened by forever chemicals and less financially equipped to remove them from the drinking water. The program’s main goals are to address forever chemicals in the drinking water supply, target resources to communities most in need of assistance, and advance equity and environmental justice by reducing barriers to funding.74 Recognizing that states may already have trusting relationships with small and disadvantaged communities that lack the capacity and resources to apply for and administer federal grants, the program is noncompetitive, administered by states and territories themselves,75 and does not require state matching funds.76
Each of the programs mentioned above also has carveouts specifically for Tribal communities. Subject to the same criteria as the overall funding programs, the IIJA provides these programs a combined $36 million over the next five years to help Tribal communities upgrade their drinking water systems to combat forever chemicals.77 The EPA has already begun to administer the $16 million DWSRF Tribal set-aside program, and in 2023, EPA regional offices will begin to administer the $20 million EC-SDC program.78
Although not focused specifically on helping local governments and communities combat forever chemicals in the drinking water, there is also a final funding source that states can leverage—the larger DWSRF. The program received nearly $12 billion as part of the IIJA,79 and state and local governments may use loans from the fund to finance projects related to forever chemicals, among other projects such as fixing leaky pipes and replacing water storage tanks.80 There is a key difference between the DWSRF funds allocated specifically to address PFAS and overall DWSRF funds: States must provide a 20 percent match for the latter.81 State and local governments would incur a cost in providing matching funds, but again, these costs would not exceed the savings created by avoidable health and environmental catastrophes.
The proposed rule and accompanying funding discussed in this report represent a small but critical step to ensure safe drinking water for all. Further research into PFAS and the extent to which all Americans, specifically disadvantaged communities, are exposed to them will likely call attention to the need for greater, more stringent regulation. Federal regulation is especially critical given that many companies, including those in the oil and gas industry, continue to use PFAS, hiding such use behind the shield of state laws that protect “trade secrets.”82 Every community deserves to have safe drinking water, and administrative and legislative actions of this nature are critical to ensuring access for all Americans, protecting public health, advancing environmental justice, and supporting improved infrastructure.