EPA: New tests increase number of 'forever chemicals' measured in drinking water

EPA: New tests increase number of 'forever chemicals' measured in drinking water

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) logo is displayed on a door at its headquarters on March 16, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) logo is displayed on a door at its headquarters on March 16, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency validated new testing methods Thursday to measure the presence of widespread contaminates called PFAS in the nation's drinking water.

PFAS, an abbreviation for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been linked to liver, reproductive, cholesterol and immune issues in humans, as well as cancer in lab animals. EPA has issued a lifetime heath advisory on the amounts of two specific kinds PFAS in drinking water. But it has not set mandatory limits for any of thousands of different variations of the chemicals.

The new testing protocol will expand the number of PFAS measured in drinking water to 29, up from 18.

In a news release EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler called the expansion an "important scientific advancement."

PFAS are known as "forever chemicals" because they don't break down in nature and build up in humans exposed to them.

Maplewood-based 3M and other major PFAS producers and users, including DuPont and Chemours, face a variety of public lawsuits stemming from PFAS fouling drinking water, surface water and soil. Private personal injury actions are being considered, as well as shareholder lawsuits brought stock owners who say companies ignored their own research that showed PFAS were potentially dangerous.

Though it discontinued production and use of two types of PFAS in 2002, 3M has testified under oath that PFAS have never hurt people at the level at which they exist in the environment.

PFAS are used to make products heat, stain and water resistant. For example Teflon and 3M's iconic Scotchgard product contain PFAS.

The EPA heretofore focused virtually all of its attention on two PFAS - PFOA and PFAS - as it sought to deal with a water pollution scandal that now affects more than 100 million Americans.

The new testing protocol will determine the presence of other PFAS in drinking water. Scientist say some of them may be as toxic as PFOA and PFAS.

The PFAS industry, including 3M, wants each variety of PFAS tested individually before placing restrictions on its presence in the water supply. The industry also endorses much higher allowances for PFAS in drinking water than the EPA recommends.

Because PFAS are used in firefighting foams that have polluted water systems on and around military bases, some members of the House and Senate tried to have all PFAS designated hazardous as part of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. But the hazardous label that would have pushed PFAS into Superfund status for clean up was stripped from a conference committee bill. So was a provision that would have required the measurement of PFAS in drinking water.

An education campaign by health advocates such as the Environmental Working Group and the new feature film "Dark Waters," based on a PFAS pollution case, aim to raise public awareness of the problem.

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