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EPA plans to limit toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water for the first time

The chemicals leach out of many product types, including firefighting foam


A geologist with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency collects samples of treated Lake Michigan water in a laboratory at the water treatment plant in Wilmette, Illinois, on July 3, 2021.

Photo/Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS

By Michael Hawthorne
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Water utilities will be required to routinely test for toxic forever chemicals, and spend billions upgrading treatment plants to filter them, under the first-ever national limits intended to protect Americans from widespread threats to human health and the environment.

In Illinois alone, the drinking water of more than 660,000 people is contaminated at levels exceeding the proposed standards for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS. The most widely detected versions of the chemicals build up in human blood, cause cancer and other diseases and take years to leave the body.

Last year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared there is effectively no safe level of exposure to perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), used by 3M for decades to make Scotchgard stain repellent, or perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which 3M sold to DuPont to manufacture Teflon coatings for cookware, clothing and wiring.

On Tuesday the EPA announced it intends to require utilities to limit concentrations of the two forever chemicals in drinking water to 4 parts per trillion, an amount the agency said is the lowest at which PFOS and PFOA can be accurately detected. Four other PFAS, including replacements for the original Scotchgard and Teflon chemicals, also will be regulated for the first time.

“The experts here felt this was the level of stringency required to protect public health, and that the law would allow for us,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said. “This is a transformative action that we’re taking.”

Though the new limits will require an expensive overhaul of thousands of utilities across the nation, for now Chicago and other Illinois communities that depend on Lake Michigan for drinking water will not be required to do anything other than test occasionally for the chemicals.

Past testing by the Chicago Department of Water Management and the Illinois EPA detected forever chemicals in treated Lake Michigan water but at levels below the new federal standards.

Peoria, where PFAS have been detected as high as 12.9 parts per trillion, is the largest Illinois city that will need to improve its treatment process, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis of testing conducted by the Illinois EPA during the past two years.

In the Chicago area, the state’s testing found PFAS exceeding the new federal standards in Cary, Channahon, Crest Hill, Fox Lake, Lake in the Hills, Marengo, Rockdale, South Elgin and Sugar Grove. All of those communities rely on wells; several have stopped using their most contaminated sources of drinking water.

President Joe Biden and Regan, a former top environmental regulator in North Carolina appointed to lead the EPA, came into office pledging to make regulating PFAS a priority after years of promises but little action by the federal government. Since the early 2000s it has largely been left to trial lawyers to pry industry studies and other records from PFAS manufacturers and seek payment and restitution for damages caused by the chemicals.

“Today we can celebrate a huge victory for public health in this country,” said Rob Bilott, a Cincinnati attorney who launched the scrutiny of forever chemicals with lawsuits he filed against DuPont in Ohio and West Virginia during the 2000s.

“It has taken far too long to get to this point,” Bilott said. “But the scientific facts and truth about the health threat posed by these man-made poisons have finally prevailed over the decades of corporate cover-ups and misinformation campaigns designed to mislead the public and delay action.”

Once-secret 3M documents unearthed by Bilott and the Minnesota attorney general’s office show top executives at the Minnesota-based conglomerate knew about the harmful effects of forever chemicals as early as the 1950s. 3M didn’t begin telling the EPA what it knew about PFOS and PFOA until 1998 — more than two decades after Congress approved the nation’s first chemical safety law.

Forever chemicals end up in lakes, rivers and wells after flushing through sewage treatment plants and spreading from factory smokestacks. The chemicals also leach out of products such as carpets, clothing, cookware, cosmetics, dental floss, fast-food wrappers, firefighting foam, food packaging, microwave popcorn bags, paper plates, pizza boxes, rain jackets and ski wax.

Nearly every American has PFAS in their bodies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Babies are born with the chemicals in their blood.

Scientists are finding that tiny concentrations can trigger testicular and kidney cancer, birth defects, liver damage, impaired fertility, immune system disorders, high cholesterol and obesity. Links to breast cancer and other diseases are suspected.


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