What the EPA limits on ‘forever chemicals’ in water mean

Brianne Callahan of the Water Center explains the new regulations on PFAS, plus how they might affect consumer water bills, health, and more.

No one wants to imagine chemicals in the water they drink.

Yet PFAS—the “forever chemicals” used in products from clothing to some non-stick pans—contaminate nearly half of tap water in the U.S., according to a 2023 U.S. Geological Survey study. Exposure to them has known negative consequences, including cancer and developmental harm to infants and children.

A glass of water being poured.
Image: iStock/Byjeng

Now, for the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency has set limits on the levels of PFAS, or “per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” allowed in drinking water. In addition, the Biden Administration announced $1 billion in funding for testing and treating both public water and privately owned wells.

Brianne Callahan, senior research manager at the Water Center at Penn, is an attorney by training who came to work at Penn from the environmental nonprofit New Jersey Future. She conducts research on water affordability, stormwater, and communication around PFAS, which human-made chemicals that consist of carbon and fluorine atoms and are used for their water-repellent and resistance-to-heat properties.

Callahan explains that the new regulations “place limits on the amount of PFAS that can be in the drinking water system. Previously, this was not regulated at all. There are a number of types of PFAS—tens of thousands of types of PFAS, in fact—and this new rule regulates five different PFAS in particular for contamination levels, not just individual contaminants but also mixtures of them. Public water systems have up to three years to complete their monitoring. Then they’ll have to announce to the public what they found. If levels exceed these new standards, they have five years from when they discovered the exceedance to become compliant.”

There are a number of treatment filtration options, says Callahan, but the projects are large and expensive. “For the granular activated carbon option,” she says, “a community might need multiple big tanks lined up together that hold the carbon filters. One town in New Jersey that has a bunch of PFAS in its wells is looking at a price tag of around $100 million for its filtration. For another New Jersey town, I think it’s going to cost approximately $5 million. These are not small projects.”

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