The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced major drinking water health advisories for four kinds of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), commonly known as “forever chemicals” due to their longevity in the environment. The push to curtail use of the compounds is part of renewed federal efforts to ensure clean drinking water, especially in small or disadvantaged communities. Recent studies have revealed that PFAS are significantly more harmful to human health and the environment than previously believed.

“People on the front-lines of PFAS contamination have suffered for far too long. That’s why EPA is taking aggressive action as part of a whole-of-government approach to prevent these chemicals from entering the environment and to help protect concerned families from this pervasive challenge,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement. In addition, he encouraged states and territories to apply for $1 billion in grant funding to address the contaminants under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The interim water health advisories update EPA rules issued in 2016 addressing the presence of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), two compounds that have been ubiquitous for decades. The EPA also announced that it would issue first-ever final health advisories for perfluorobutane sulfonic acid and its potassium salt (PFBS), as well as hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO) dimer acid and its ammonium salt or “GenX” chemicals.

As early as the 1940s, chemical companies have been producing PFAS for the manufacture of fluoropolymer coatings used in heat, oil, stain, grease and water-resistant products. There are approximately 9,000 types of PFAS chemicals. PFAS can be found in nonstick cookware, clothing, makeup, food packaging, smartphones and sunscreen, among myriad other products. As well as being resistant to degradation, these compounds are easily transported through the environment and accumulate in living organisms. PFAS persist in Americans’ blood and are prevalent in U.S. water systems, food and air.

The new federal standards are not enforceable but will serve as a guide to help states, territories, Tribes and water systems set legally binding limits. The EPA is also preparing a  comprehensive PFAS National Drinking Water Regulation for the fall. The proposed rule would require utilities to remove the substances from drinking water.

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