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EPA puts strict limits on ‘forever chemicals’ in U.S. drinking water

A close-up of water flowing out of a faucet.
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PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment over time, which is why they’re building up in water supplies.

For the first time, the federal government is putting limits on “forever chemicals” called PFAS in the nation’s drinking water – a move that will protect communities across the Mountain West.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS, are man-made chemicals used in a variety of industrial and consumer products – from nonstick pans to dental floss – and have been linked with health problems like cancer and infertility. They’re known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment over time, which is why they’re building up in water supplies.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s new rule requires public water utilities to reduce PFAS to near-zero levels over the next five years. The two most common forms of these toxic chemicals – PFOA and PFOS – can’t exceed 4 parts per trillion in drinking water, according to the EPA. The federal agency’s previous guideline was capping the chemicals at 70 parts per trillion.

In the Mountain West, PFAS have been detected in the drinking water of several cities, including Las Vegas; Denver; Salt Lake City; Reno, Nev.; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Cheyenne, Wyo., among others. That’s according to the nonpartisan Environmental Working Group.

Scott Faber, who leads the nonprofit’s government affairs, said during a webinar Wednesday that the new drinking water standards will protect roughly 100 million Americans from exposure and prevent thousands of related illnesses, such as bladder cancer, cardiovascular disease, and strokes.

“It comes too late for many people who have been poisoned with these toxic forever chemicals without their knowledge and their consent,” Faber said. “But today is really a demonstration that the polluters are no longer going to be able to use our drinking water supplies as their dumping grounds.”

Environmental Working Group estimates there could be nearly 30,000 industrial polluters releasing PFAS into the environment, including drinking water supplies.

According to the EPA, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law sets aside $9 billion to help communities address their PFAS problems, including $1 billion for initial drinking water testing and treatments.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.