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  • Writer's pictureJ.D. Solomon

Ten Questions to Help You Understand the Proposed USEPA PFAS Regulations

1. What is PFAS?

PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances, are fluorinated carbon-chain compounds. PFAS has been used in fire response, industrial applications, and consumer products for decades. For these reasons, PFAS is also found in landfills and wastewater treatment facilities. PFAS chemicals are manufactured and produced worldwide.

2. How many PFAS compounds will USEPA regulate and to what levels?

The EPA would cap PFOA and PFOS at 4 parts per trillion, essentially the lowest level at which they can be reliably measured. Four other PFAS chemicals will also be regulated based on an index.

3. How have the human health effects of PFAS been determined?

Some studies on PFAS have been conducted on humans, and many studies have also used animal models or epidemiological approaches to assess the potential health effects of these chemicals.

4. How does USEPA develop regulatory levels for PFAS?

According to USEPA, the threshold concept is important in the regulatory concept. The individual threshold hypothesis holds that a range of exposures can be tolerated by an organism with essentially no chance of toxic effects. Further, it is often prudent to focus on the most sensitive members of the population. Therefore, regulatory efforts are made to keep exposures below the most sensitive population threshold.

5. How can I relate the proposed USEPA regulatory levels to something I understand?

Four parts per trillion are approximately equal to 4 eyedroppers of fluid in an Olympic-sized pool.

6. Have we seen clusters of human health effects in places like Wilmington, NC, where the population has been subjected to PFAS exposure in the pert-per-trillion range for decades?

No, but there are thousands of PFAS compounds that can interact with different effects—the models on which the regulatory levels are acknowledged to be conservative by USEPA.

7. Will all drinking water systems be covered?

Public water systems would be required to monitor these six PFAS. These systems would have to pay for upgrades to ensure their levels remain below the legally enforceable limits set by the EPA. The proposed regulations do not cover private drinking water or irrigation wells.

8. How much will this cost?

The costs will be in the range of hundreds of billions of dollars. The cost of monitoring for PFAS at the lowest detectable limits is expensive. The treatment systems for PFAS are granulated activated carbon, which is expensive to install and maintain.

9. Who will pay for the costs?

Utility systems ratepayers will pay for nearly all of the costs. The Federal government will be required to provide capital funding to help many systems; however, water utilities in the US receive only about 4 percent of the income from the Federal government.

10. Will these regulations fix the problem?

No, there are over 7000 PFAS compounds that have properties that allow them to repel water and oil. For this reason, PFAS compounds do not break down easily over time and have been dubbed "forever chemicals." PFAS has been found at elevated levels across the United States in solid, surface water, groundwater, and air. At 4 parts per trillion, PFAS is everywhere and will continue to be manufactured as long as there is public demand for it.

Part of the "problem" is also related to the human health effects of PFAS compounds is largely unknown. It will take decades to understand how PFAS affects people of different ages and those with different conditions or diseases.


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