The November 2020 issue of Consumer Reports carries an unsettling cover story focusing on PFAS in drinking water across the United States. Titled “Your Guide to Safer Water: Why the government allows dangerous chemicals in your water and how you can protect yourself,” the article is critical of regulatory system designed to keep water safe.
If you haven’t heard of PFAS, it’s short for per- and polyfluorinated substances. PFAS have been manufactured and used in various industries around the globe since the 1940s. Their prevalence and staying power in the environment are concerning —though there is much still to learn about health impacts from exposure, especially at levels in drinking water.
For a substance to be regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the science must show that:
- The contaminant may have an adverse effect on the health of persons.
- The contaminant is known to occur or there is a high chance that the contaminant will occur in public water systems often enough and at levels of public health concern.
- Contaminant removal from drinking water is feasible.
These SDWA requirements were introduced in 1996, responding to a 1986 set of amendments that mandated EPA regulate 25 new contaminants every three years.
In 1994, Robert Perciasepe, EPA’s assistant administrator for water, explained the challenge of the 1986 mandates this way: “This rigid ‘25 every 3 years’ statutory requirement outpaces the Agency's ability to critically assess whether there are public health threats posed by thousands of contaminants that may appear in drinking water before developing regulations. Under the present statutory scheme, future regulations may not be aimed at the highest priority public health risks, potentially increasing the already significant regulatory burden on EPA, the States and public water systems with only marginal benefits.”
Why must EPA prioritize risk? Well, a new regulation can cost billions of dollars – millions for individual communities -- as utilities change water sources or upgrade treatment to comply. And we consumers pay for those costs through our water bills. Funds expended on one potential risk can reduce the amount of funds available for another. It makes sense that every dollar spent should go toward addressing those issues that are of greatest concern.
Still, the pace at which regulation occurs is frustrating for many consumers and environmental advocacy groups. Expect to see U.S. Congress consider updates to the SDWA in the years ahead, and hopefully commit more resources source water protection and to research that helps EPA make the right decisions to protect public health.
For more on PFAS, here’s a handy guide on the subject.