EPA proposes limits for ‘forever chemicals’ in Iowans’ drinking water

The EPA is proposing new regulations for keeping six 'forever chemicals' out of our drinking water.
Published: Mar. 14, 2023 at 10:33 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - The EPA is proposing new regulations for keeping six so-called “forever chemicals” out of drinking water.

These compounds belong to a group known as PFAS chemicals, which are associated with several serious health effects. Testing has revealed the presence of some of these chemicals in the drinking water of several Iowa communities, including Central City and Dubuque.

In March 2021, the EPA issued rules concerning two substances. The regulation proposed now would add parameters for six more.

Joe Charbonnet, an environmental engineering professor at Iowa State University, said there are “at least 6,000″ chemicals that belong to this family. He added some of the ones in the proposed legislation were used as substitutes for other, similar compounds that had been phased out of use.

“We tend to regulate chemicals one at a time in this country. However, there are increasing calls from the scientific community to think about families of chemicals as classes and regulating as a class. What we’ve seen happen with several types of toxic chemicals, including with PFAS, is frequently when one is regulated or phased out of use, industry will switch to another very similar chemical that is technically a different chemical, and therefore not regulated, but presents a lot of the same health risks,” said Charbonnet.

The proposed rule would allow 4 nanograms of the regulated chemicals per liter of water, also known as 4 parts per trillion.

“Four parts per trillion is somewhere on the range of a few grains of salt in an Olympic-sized swimming pool,” said Charbonnet.

While that’s a minuscule amount, Charbonnet said these chemicals can lead to health effects even at very low concentrations. PFAS substances have been linked to cancer, damage to reproductive health, and lowered immune response. He added, once they’re in the environment, they’re pretty much there to stay.

“Part of the problem is that they’re very, very persistent. They earn their nickname forever chemicals fairly honestly,” said Charbonnet.

Charbonnet said adding this regulation is part of maintaining high-quality drinking water.

“It’s important to note that in the US, we have some of the highest quality tap water in the world, and the water coming out of your tap is really, really good,” said Charbonnet. “But in order to maintain that enviable position of having such good tap water, we need to understand new chemical threats and figure out what are those threats and how can we treat them.”

According to Chris Lester, Water Department Manager for the city of Dubuque, the city is currently testing around the limits that are being proposed.

“The original samples that the DNR collected in September of 2022, the PFOA was 4.6 parts per trillion. So just above what the proposed regulations would be, and then for PFOS, it was actually below the 4 parts per trillion. So fortunately, we’re not exceeding those by a great deal. We’re kind of in the ballpark anyway,” said Lester.

PFAS chemicals were also found in the water of Central City in 2022. Trevyn Cunningham, Public Works Director for Central City, said they are no longer testing for PFAS chemicals after taking the contaminated well out of commission.

The EPA will hold a public hearing about the proposed regulations this May. Members of the public can learn about registering to attend here.