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U.S. House Bill Calls for New Limits on Chemicals in Drinking Water

Water intakes at Lake Washington in Newburgh, N.Y. in 2016. The upstate New York city's water supply was found to have high levels of PFOS at that time.

Water intakes at Lake Washington in Newburgh, N.Y. in 2016. The upstate New York city's water supply was found to have high levels of PFOS at that time.

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The legislation targets a class of industrial compounds known as “PFAS,” which have stoked public health concerns.

Lawmakers in the U.S. House introduced a bill this week that would establish new drinking water standards for chemicals that are used to make products like non-stick pans, waterproof fabric and firefighting foam and that have been linked to cancer and other health problems. 

Four Democrats and one Republican are so far backing the legislation. It would give the Environmental Protection Agency two years to come up with an enforceable legal limit for levels of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances in drinking water.

This class of industrial chemicals is often referred to as PFAS.

“It is past time we address these contaminants with the seriousness they merit,” Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat who is the bill’s lead sponsor, said in a statement.

“Public health is at stake while the EPA continues to dither and delay setting enforceable limits,” he added. “This is unacceptable.”

The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which is chaired by Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, who is one of the cosponsors of the measure.

Worries about water contamination from PFAS have spread to towns around the U.S. in recent years, particularly those near military installations and factory sites. And some states are moving ahead with measures aimed at curbing public health risks from the chemicals.

Last week, EPA released a draft set of recommendations for cleaning up groundwater contaminated with PFOA and PFOS, which are two types of PFAS chemicals. The agency is currently taking public comments on that proposed guidance.

David Andrews, a senior scientist with Environmental Working Group, which conducts advocacy and research on chemical safety issues, described the EPA proposal as “not a serious response to a drinking water contamination crisis” and a “Band-Aid, at best.”

Environmental Working Group said last year that based on its own analysis up to 110 million Americans could have PFAS chemicals in their drinking water. The group notes that there are currently no federally enforceable drinking water standards for the chemicals.

A 2016 Harvard-led study found troubling PFAS levels in water supplies used by six million people, but noted gaps in data and said the number of exposed people may be higher.

There are thousands of chemicals that fall within the PFAS family. Manufacturing of them in the U.S. dates back to around the 1940s.

PFOS, formerly used to make 3M’s Scotchgard and PFOA, which DuPont previously used to make Teflon, were among the earliest of the chemicals to raise health concerns. The use of these two substances has been phased out under voluntary industry efforts.

DuPont, and a company it spun-off, Chemours, reached a $670 million settlement in 2017 in thousands of lawsuits involving allegations of PFOA contamination from a West Virginia plant.

The group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility notes that companies have moved swiftly to replace PFOA and PFOS with new substances and that the number of PFAS chemicals imported or made in large quantities in the U.S. has risen to 118 from 76 in 2002.

“This rapid rate of PFAS substitution makes it impossible for public health agencies to keep up with toxicology assessments in time to protect the public,” the group’s science policy director, Kyla Bennett, said in a statement in late March.

Environmental Working Group also criticised a PFAS “action plan” EPA issued in February, saying it delayed action on drinking water standards and that it would not stop the introduction of new PFAS chemicals, or end their use in everyday products.

Dave Ross, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Water, stressed at the time the plan was unveiled that the agency did intend to set maximum contaminant levels for PFOA and PFOS.

PFAS chemicals are found in firefighting foam used by the military. The New York Times has reported that the Pentagon, facing potentially heavy cleanup costs, was urging EPA to adopt weaker standards for groundwater pollution caused by the chemicals.

State lawmakers have been taking steps of their own to regulate PFAS.

The group Safer States said earlier this year there were proposals in at least seven states to limit PFAS levels in drinking water. The group also highlighted state level proposals aimed at cutting down on the use of the chemicals in food packaging and firefighting foam.

Vermont’s legislature in late April approved a bill requiring public water utilities there to test to ensure levels of five PFAS compounds are below certain thresholds.

If the chemicals are above levels described in the legislation, water system managers would have to issue “do not drink” notices and treat the water or take other measures to reduce contamination.