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Daily News Blog

17
Apr

“Forever Chemical” PFAS Drinking Water Rules Issued, Urgency to Shift from Petrochemicals Pesticides

EPA announced new drinking water standards to reduce public exposure to PFAS resulting in bioaccumulation in humans, wildlife, and the environment.

(Beyond Pesticides, April 17, 2024) With headlines drawing public attention to the contamination of drinking water after years of federal government neglect, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on April 10 new standards to reduce public exposure to PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” because of their persistence. EPA has finalized a National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) for six PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS, which EPA has recognized have no safe level of exposure, regulating new chemicals for the first time since the 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). PFAS persistence and bioaccumulation in humans, wildlife, and the environment is due to the strength of a resulting fluorine–carbon atom bond. PFAS contamination of drinking water, surface and groundwater, waterways, soils, and the food supply—among other resources—is ubiquitous worldwide. PFAS is used in everyday products, including cookware, clothes, carpets, as an anti-sticking and anti-stain agent, in plastics, machinery, and as a pesticide. The action was welcomed by environmentalists and public health advocates as an important step but left many concerned that any level of exposure to these chemicals is unacceptable and critical of EPA’s ongoing failure to act despite years of overwhelming scientific evidence of harm and the availability of safer alternative materials and practices.

PFAS or related compounds are included in 70% of pesticides introduced to the global market from 2015 to 2020, according to a review paper published in January 2022 in Environmental Pollution. And the surge in their use has come without a full understanding of their potential impact on the environment and human health. PFAS health risks include developmental, metabolic, cardiovascular, and reproductive harm, cancer, damage to the liver, kidneys, and respiratory system, as well as the potential to increase the chance of disease infection and severity. Gestational (during pregnancy) and childhood exposure to PFAS increases cardiometabolic risk, or the risk of heart diseases and metabolic disorders, later in life, according to a Brown University study published in Environment International in 2021.  In light of the adverse effects, Beyond Pesticides has urged EPA and other federal agencies to advance alternatives to PFAS, rather than establish levels of harm with acceptable residues, issuing a nationwide action in March calling for the federal government to facilitate a transition away from plastics in farming, food, and water.

PFAS Solution Must Be Comprehensive: Stop Use of PFAS, Prevent “New” PFAS Replacements

The PFAS contamination problem, according to advocates, calls for a comprehensive policy rather than the “whack-a-mole” approach to chasing individual contamination crises after they have occurred and inflicted serious harm to people’s health. With a holistic strategy, like that contained in organic land management under the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), the government must consider “cradle-to-grave,” from production through use to disposal, and require that systems are put in place to prevent the need for use of synthetic materials. In this context, the goal is to eliminate the use of petrochemical substances that are contributing to daily health threats, biodiversity collapse, and the climate emergency.

EPA PFAS Drinking Water Regulation

The NPDWR establishes maximum contamination limits (MCLs) for PFOA and PFOS at 4 parts per trillion (ppt) (the limit of detection), two among the roughly 14,000 known PFAS. Additionally, the rule imposes a 10 parts10 parts per trillion (ppt) limit for three other PFAS—PFHxS, PFNA, and HFPO-DA (commonly referred to as GenX), while introducing a combined limit for four PFAS, calculated using a Hazard Index method. The Hazard Index calculates a compliance value from the detected PFAS levels—if the total ratio of these levels reaches or exceeds 1.0, water systems are required to lower these PFAS levels. Actions might be necessary even if only one of these four chemicals is detected at significant levels. EPA plans to provide an online calculator to help water systems determine their Hazard Index compliance. In addition, regulated public water systems have three years to complete their initial monitoring. Systems must include their results in their Annual Water Quality reports to customers, and PFAS detected above the new standards triggers a requirement to reduce if levels exceed the new limits within five years. EPA estimates that six to ten percent of water systems will be affected. These rules will be implemented by and will require state, tribal, and other public water systems to implement testing and treatment to remove these chemicals.

Additionally, EPA has set Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLGs), which are non-enforceable health goals indicating safe levels without any health risks. These goals are not legally enforceable, focusing purely on health impacts without considering economic or technical feasibility—unlike MCLs, which are legally enforceable under SDWA and require a cost-benefit analysis. EPA has set MCLGs at zero for PFOA and PFOS, recognizing no level of exposure is safe, and 10 parts per trillion ppt for the remaining PFAS. Given that EPA itself has set health advisory levels for certain PFAS at zero, or in the parts per quadrillion, advocates continue to raise alarm at the inability of the regulatory framework to impact the enormity of the crises PFAS represents.

Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, EPA has $21 billion allocated to strengthen U.S. drinking water systems, with $9 billion targeted toward addressing PFAS and emerging contaminants. The financing programs are part of President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, seeking to have 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities historically marginalized by underinvestment and overburdened by pollution. With this funding, EPA commits to assisting water systems with the adoption of technologies like granular activated carbon and reverse osmosis to meet the new standards.

After years of advocate pressure, EPA began to take action under its PFAS Strategic Roadmap—including “designat[ing] two of the most widely used PFAS [PFOA and PFOS] as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA),” issuing interim updated drinking water health advisories for PFOA and PFOS, and issuing final health advisories on two others that had been considered “replacement” chemicals for manufacturing uses—perfluorobutane sulfonic acid and its potassium salt (PFBS), and hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO) dimer acid and its ammonium salt (the so-called “GenX chemicals”). And yet, amid the public outcry, the number of PFAS compounds continues to grow. Since the phase-out of PFOA and PFOS, companies have shifted to “short-chain” PFAS such as GenX, which is now a significant concern, for example, in the Cape Fear Watershed downstream of a Chemours manufacturing plant in North Carolina,

Despite these new drinking water standards and progress, EPA’s steps are seen as incremental in confronting the pervasive threat of PFAS. This suggests a need for more aggressive and comprehensive regulations that preemptively curb the production and widespread use of PFAS rather than just managing their consequences. While setting a floor, advocates note that only six PFAS chemicals in use and production are covered by the new regulations.

In the absence of viable solutions at the federal level, a 2022 Safer States’ analysis of state-level legislation on PFAS demonstrates the extent of the problem that 22 states have taken steps to protect their residents. Eleven states (ME, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT, WA, WI) have implemented standards like Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for specific PFAS in drinking water. As of January, Maine currently enforces an interim standard during its rule-making process to set final PFAS MCLs, with a phase out by 2030, except for “currently unavoidable use.” Delaware and Virginia are also in the process of setting their own PFAS standards. Additionally, twelve states (AK, CA, CT, CO, HI, IL, MD, MN, NC, NM, OH, OR) have established guidance, health advisories, or notification levels for various PFAS chemicals to protect their residents. A handful of state legislatures are considering banning pesticides containing PFAS entirely—as the Maryland General Assembly considers HB 1190, prohibiting the sale and use of pesticides with PFAS as an active ingredient by 2025. (See Beyond Pesticides’ statement in support here and call to action here). Furthermore, recognizing the impacts on the agricultural sector from PFAS, the state of Maine has taken the lead in both state and federal efforts to support farmers who have been affected by PFAS contamination, including the Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act and the Healthy H2O Act

PFAS Contamination Vectors

As Beyond Pesticides reported in July 2023, a study by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) finds that almost half of U.S. tap water is contaminated with PFAS chemicals, with measured concentrations in both private wells and public water sources. Authors of the study “estimate that at least one PFAS could be detected in about 45% of U.S. drinking-water samples,” likely a low estimate as only 32 are detectable by USGS lab tests. Advocates note that while PFOA and PFOS are the most studied, it should not be implied that other legacy contaminants are safe or safer—the absence of knowledge does not translate to an absence of harm.

A known source of soil and drinking water contamination is PFAS added as ‘inert’ ingredients to pesticides and fertilizers. As Beyond Pesticides has noted, “Why would PFAS be found in a pesticide formulation? The chemicals are included as dispersants, surfactants, anti-foaming agents, or other pesticide adjuvants intended to increase the effect of the active ingredient. EPA includes PFAS chemicals in its “Inert Finder” database, and according to a PEER [Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility] press release, many companies have patents on file for pesticide formulations containing PFAS, shrouded behind claims of trade secret formulation and do not disclose PFAS ingredients. PFAS soil contamination is also likely from PFAS as an undisclosed ingredient in pesticide and/or fertilizer formulations.  pesticides with PFAS active ingredients will not cause disruptions to the pest management industry. Pest problems in agriculture and landscaped areas can be prevented through practices that improve soil health and promote biodiversity and habitat for pest predators. If pest problems do become an issue, a wide range of insecticidal soaps and essential oils, classified either as certified organic, or minimum risk, are available and represent a least-toxic option. See Beyond Pesticides resources on Organic and Organic Compatible Products, what individuals can do organically in yards and gardens, and the benefits of organic agriculture and choosing organic food.

Secondly, PFAS contamination results from leaching out of plastic containers and contaminating food products. As reported by Beyond Pesticides in 2023, research published inEnvironment Technology and Letters confirm the propensity of PFAS to contaminate various pesticide products through storage containers. Testing done by PEER in 2020 initiated testing done separately by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the EPA, all of which found high levels of PFAS in several mosquito insecticide products sprayed throughout states like Massachusetts, Florida, and New York. Ultimately, EPA traced significant PFAS contamination to the manufacturing process used since 1983 by one manufacturer, Inhance Technologies, which produces 200 million HDPE containers a year. Multiple lawsuits and EPA stop use orders have been ineffective at ending this manufacturing process, used only by Inhance, although some other plastic containers have been shown to leach PFAS at lower levels.

Finally, PFAS compounds have been found to contaminate water and irrigation sources, and soils themselves — often using fertilizers made from so-called “biosludge” (biosolids) from local waste treatment plants. In addition, these plants may discharge millions of gallons of wastewater into waterways, contaminating them; current waste and water treatment generally does not eliminate PFAS compounds from the treated effluent water. Biosolids and wastewater have long been sources of exposure concerns related to pesticides, industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and household chemicals; PFAS contamination is now rising as a specific and concerning addition to that nasty list. These forever (and perhaps “everywhere”) compounds may be contaminating nearly 20 million acres of productive agricultural land in the U.S. A significant portion of farmers, perhaps 5%, is using biosludge from local treatment plants as fertilizer on their acreage. The use of biosludge was thought by many, a decade ago, to be a sensible use of the waste products from treatment; it was even encouraged by many state agricultural department programs, but now it is recognized that these products present threats when spread on fields that produce food—or anywhere that presents the possibility of living or environmental exposures to PFAS compounds. Notably, there are currently no federal requirements to test such sludge “fertilizers” for the presence of PFAS.  (See Beyond Pesticides reporting from 2022 on Maine laws against biosludge).

Biosludge products are not only sold to farmers; they also show up on the shelves of retailers as fertilizers for consumer home and garden use. The organization wrote in 2021 that these products not only often contain PFAS but also harbor “hazardous pesticides, heavy metals, antibiotics, and other pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and a range of other toxicants… None of these risks [are] relayed to consumers on fertilizer packages. With fertilizer regulations failing the American consumer, it becomes more important than ever to seek out certified organic fertilizer products.” (See here, here, and here for Beyond Pesticides list of organic and organic-compatible products).

Organic agriculture and land care

These new drinking water regulations from EPA would not happen without pressure from advocates, non-profit groups, and independent science, however, the solution does not go far enough. Transition, of course, requires time and effort, and should be supported by the state (and federal) governments, but getting off the toxic chemical treadmill in agriculture resolves multiple environmental and health problems simultaneously — including that of PFAS in pesticides and fertilizers and related contamination of soils, groundwater, and drinking water. EPA’s latest attempt underscores federal failures in regulation and the gravity of realigning federal and state agencies so that precaution becomes the guiding watchword. Legacy or “forever” chemical contamination is a dramatic demonstration of how a historically non-precautionary ethic in the U.S. can cause egregious harm — even years and decades hence. 

And the viable solution available to all producers? Organic regenerative agriculture.

Certified organic production and food labeled “USDA Organic” may not be produced with biosolids or fertilizers containing biosolids, and the National Organic Program proscribes the use of toxic pesticides.  For more on Beyond Pesticides’ work with grassroots support across the U.S. to “Keeping Organic Strong” through the robust organic certification process, overseen by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).  The strength of the Organic Certification label rests on the independent system established by the 1990 Organic Food Production Act and, despite industry pressure to weaken organic certification standards (see most recent Beyond Pesticides March 18, 2024, comments to the NOSB on Compost), consumers and organic producers alike can have confidence in the integrity of organic certification.

Beyond Pesticides offers a variety of articles in the archives detailing the dangers and prevalence of PFAS in pesticides. Check out “Threatened Waters: Turning the Tide on Pesticide Contamination” to learn more about the health and safety of water sources. Click here to sign up for action alerts from Beyond Pesticides to take action on PFAS contamination and other environmental issues, and please take a moment to explore Beyond Pesticides’ Tools for Change webpage to begin your journey in advocacy. 

Another important place to eliminate exposure to the harmful impacts of synthetic pesticide/fertilizer use is in our local public parks, playgrounds, and open spaces managed by municipalities, school districts, and colleges. Beyond Pesticides established the Parks for a Sustainable Future program to assist with the transition to organic land management in communities across the U.S. This holistic approach provides a 2-year pilot program with free technical training and transition to organic management guidance for two sites. See here for more information. 

The organization also strives to maintain the integrity of organic standards through the Keeping Organic Strong campaign and historical work to transition agriculture to organic practices. In 2022, Beyond Pesticides sponsored a Climate Change Calls for Phase Out of Fossil Fuels Linked to Petrochemical Pesticides and Fertilizer series of national virtual seminars (with archived videos) covering health, biodiversity, and climate. For more on climate-friendly organic agriculture, see Daily News and the groundbreaking work of the Rodale Institute, as captured in its Farming Systems Trial — 40-Year Report, which shows the efficacy and benefits of organic agriculture. California Certified Organic Farmers Association’s Roadmap to an Organic California provides a policy framework for advancing agricultural programs that eliminate the use of petrochemical PFAS containing pesticides and fertilizers while combating climate change.  

To raise your voice in support of two Congressional bills to fight PFAS contamination, see Beyond Pesticides’ Action:

Tell Congress to Take Action: The Farm Bill must include the Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act and support the Healthy H2O Act to protect farmers and rural communities from PFAS contamination. Led by Chellie Pingree (D-ME), U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), and Susan Collins (R-ME), a bipartisan and bicameral bill—the Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act—has been introduced to provide assistance and relief to those affected by PFAS. A second bill, the Healthy H2O Act, introduced by Representatives Pingree and David Rouzer (R-NC) and Senators Baldwin and Collins, provides grants for water testing and treatment technology directly to individuals and non-profits in rural communities. Click here to tell your Congress member to act now.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Sources

Biden-Harris Administration Finalizes First-Ever National Drinking Water Standard to Protect 100M People from PFAS Pollution, EPA announcement, April 10, 2024.

Why is the EPA regulating PFAS and what are these ‘forever chemicals’? The Washington Post, April 10, 2024.

Meaningful and Achievable Steps You Can Take to Reduce Your Risk, EPA website

Reducing PFAS in Drinking Water with Treatment Technologies, EPA website

Pesticides Are Spreading Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals,’ Scientists Warn, Scientific American, June 2022.

Revisiting pesticide pollution: The case of fluorinated pesticides, Environmental Pollution, January 2022.

PFAS Interactive Map: PFAS Contamination Crisis, Environmental Working Group (EWG) website 

Fertilizers Compatible with Organic Landscape Management, Beyond Pesticides Fact Sheet

Pesticides in My Drinking Water? Beyond Pesticides Fact Sheet

Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS) Factsheet, National Biomonitoring Program, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

EPA Announces New Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFAS Chemicals, $1 Billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Funding to Strengthen Health Protections, EPA Announcement, June 15, 2022.

PFAS-FREE PROCUREMENT ACT OF 2023 Report by The Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, United States Senate, November 30, 2023.

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