By Keller O’Leary

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finally released the long-awaited Final PFAS New Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR), a ruling that the water treatment industry has been waiting for, and its specifics have been laid out on their website here. These regulations come as additions to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), a law first set in 1974 that has received continuous updates to better protect public health from water contamination.

There is a lot of information presented on their findings and what brought them to this first ever national ruling on the topic of forever chemicals like PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), so let’s break down some of the major points.

What Is PFAS?

PFAS is a shortened form of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a series of synthetic chemicals that were first created in the late 1930s that found usage in a variety of products. Their strength comes from their carbon-fluorine bond, a quality that makes them unable to break down on a molecular level. This durability has caused them to become mobile and pervasive. This exposure has made PFAS a constant in nearly every environment, and its dangerous rate of transfer causes it to build up in human bodies, with negative health effects attached.

While research is ongoing from a number of organizations to better understand the long-term health impacts of PFAS, the EPA released a current understanding of its health effects in June 2023, and the National Cancer Institute has compiled a portfolio of its studies on the various types of cancer correlations specific PFAS compounds may have.

What Is Covered?

Due to the advancing science and data that supports the correlation between negative health effects and exposure to these chemicals, the EPA is seeking to limit the amount of PFAS allowed in drinking water. While many organizations and municipalities already have some types of limits or goals in place for how much PFAS is acceptable in a sample, referred to as Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL) or Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLG), this EPA ruling will standardize these levels nationally. These samplings will be measured in parts-per-trillion (ppt).

Specifically, the EPA is regulating the MCL of six different PFAS:

  • PFOA
    • MCLG: 0
    • MCL: 4 ppt
  • PFOS
    • MCLG: 0
    • MCL: 4 ppt
  • PFNA
    • MCLG: 10 ppt
    • MCL: 10 ppt
  • PFHxS
    • MCLG: 10 ppt
    • MCL: 10 ppt
  • HFPO-DA (commonly known as GenX)
    • MCLG: 10 ppt
    • MCL: 10 ppt

Likewise, a mixture of two or more of PFNA, PFHxS, GenX, and PFBS is given a Hazard Index of 1.

In addition to the supporting materials used to reach these parameters, the EPA sought industry feedback through multiple rounds of stakeholder consultations and engagement activities. The EPA received more than 120,000 comments from the public regarding this decision.

How Can Public Water Systems Reach These Requirements?

The EPA does not require one specific practice to attain these MCL or MCLG, as each region may face unique demands to address their PFAS contamination. Instead, the EPA has outlined suggested practices to improve the quality of water against these chemicals, which they have dubbed the “Best Available Technologies” (BATs) to address PFAS MCLs.

The EPA strongly recommends the following practices:

  • Granulated Activated Carbon (GAC)
  • Anion Exchange
  • Reverse Osmosis (RO)
  • Nanofiltration

These BATs have been chosen for their efficiency, geographic applicability, and their compatibility with other treatment processes, among other criteria. These methods are recommended for small- and large-scale water systems alike.

What Is Required from Public Water Systems?

As many states are operating at different stages of addressing, or even quantifying, the amounts of PFAS in their water, the NPDWR is allotting public water systems 3 years to complete an initial monitoring of these chemicals in their supplies. Systems that detect PFAS in amounts higher than the listed standards will be given 5 years to implement solutions to address the heightened presence of these chemicals.

This monitoring will be made available to the public in annual water quality reports to the public, and public notifications will be required from the water systems whose PFAS levels exceed the new standards.

What Resources Are Available?

As these necessary regulations are expected to be costly, the EPA has ensured that proper funding and resources will be made available to allow underfunded communities an equitable approach to address PFAS contamination. Compliance to these new regulations is expected to reach $1.5 billion annually, but the EPA has offered $9 billion in funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to address PFAS contamination for states and territories, as well as $12 billion in funding to address general drinking water improvements, which can also be used to address PFAS contamination. This funding is available through grants and programs like the Water Technical Assistance Program.

Keller O’Leary is Managing Editor at Water Conditioning & Purification International magazine.


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