[OPINION] Stricter federal guidelines on 'forever chemicals' in drinking water pose challenges

June 22, 2022

Read the full article by Karen Feldscher (Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health)

"On June 15, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released updated health advisories warning that even tiny amounts of two types of man-made compounds, PFOS and PFOA, are harmful to humans. Currently these compounds are found in drinking water systems across the U.S. Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, discusses the new guidelines.

Q: Can you describe the EPA’s new advisories and their implications?

A: The EPA issued guidelines with new limits for how much PFOS and PFOA should be in drinking water. Both of these compounds are part of a larger class of chemicals called PFASs—per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances—which are also known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment over time. These chemicals have water- and grease-resistant properties and are used in a wide variety of products, including nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, food packaging, and firefighting foams. PFAS exposure has been linked with health issues such as kidney and testicular cancer, weakened immunity, endocrine disruption, fertility problems, and decreased birth weight.

The previous guideline, set in 2016, set a limit of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for both PFOS and PFOA in drinking water. The new advisories decrease that by more than a thousandfold. The new limit for PFOS is 0.02 ppt; for PFOA, it’s 0.004 ppt. Essentially, the EPA wants the limits to be as close as possible to zero as a growing body of research has shown how toxic these compounds are."