Zeta Cross at WaEx, New EPA regulations for safe water expected to cost municipalities billions
For the first time in 26 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued new guidelines for drinking water safety. Municipal utilities will be required to install expensive filtration systems to lower the amount of PFAS in water supplies.
PFAS and PFOS are a class of 14,000 chemicals that contaminate the drinking water of more than 200 million Americans. The chemicals are used in a wide variety of products, from non-stick pans and stain-resistant treatments for clothing and furniture to semiconductor coatings and firefighting foam.
Iyala Simba, city programs director at the Illinois Environmental Council, says PFAS are miniscule chemical compounds that are impossible to see and impossible to avoid.
“Food wrappers and pizza boxes contain PFAS to make them grease-proof,” she told The Center Square.
The Illinois Environmental Council successfully lobbied for the gradual phase out of firefighting foam, which contains heavy concentrations of PFAS. The chemical compounds are known as “forever chemicals” because they never break down. PFAS are linked to cancer, kidney disease, liver problems and birth defects.
Note the weasel word "linked to" not caused by. The actual evidence that PFAs are harmful to people in the concentrations found in water systems is, shall we say, sketchy.
“This is an issue that we are going to be dealing with for decades, if not hundreds of years because of how these chemicals are set up. They are not meant to break down,” Simba said.
In 2021, Illinois received millions of federal dollars to mitigate PFAS contamination. The new EPA drinking water guidelines are expected to cost Illinois municipalities billions of dollars.
“This is something that a lot of water treatment plants are really afraid of because they can’t begin to cover the costs,” Simba said.
Municipalities are expected to initiate lawsuits against PFAS producers, including the U.S. military, which uses firefighting foam at airports and training facilities, and chemical companies DuPont, Chemours and 3M, which use PFAS in hundreds of applications from non-stick cookware and rain gear to construction materials and packaging.
Previous guidelines for forever chemicals in drinking water were 70 parts per trillion. The EPA set 4 parts per trillion as the new guideline. Scientists say that 4ppt is a huge improvement, but they emphasize that no traceable level of forever chemicals in drinking water is “safe.”
Our local water system was forced to test for PFAS this last year. As we expected, we showed no detectable concentrations. Our water is from fairly deep wells, and the water is isolated from the surface for many thousands of years, so any contamination would have to come from the system itself. Water systems that rely on surface water, streams, rivers and lakes, as Washington DC and Baltimore do, are far more likely to see PFAS contamination. We were gratified with the outcome, but we will still have to test the water periodically to make sure no contamination has occurred. It's not our biggest expense, but it's a new one.
Battered by years of criticism from U.S. lawmakers and environmental advocates, the Department of Defense will stop purchasing PFAS-containing firefighting foam later this year and phase it out entirely in 2024.
The replacement for Aqueous Film Forming Foam has yet to be determined, and advocates are frustrated it’s taken so long to halt the use of a product containing a “forever chemical” that at high levels of exposure may lead to increased risks for cancer, among other effects. The pace of cleanup at potentially contaminated military installations and nearby communities also has come under scrutiny by Congress.
The Defense Department began searching for a fire suppressant that was more effective than water after a horrific fire aboard the USS Forrestal in 1967 killed 134 sailors and injured 161.
It sure looks like Maryland and DC were hot spots for military use of firefighting foam containing PFAS.