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EPA Makes Long-Awaited Start to Setting Health Limits for Two PFAS Chemicals

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday took its first, and long-awaited, step toward regulating the presence of two toxic PFAS chemicals in drinking water, amid growing evidence that the chemicals and others in their family are a threat to public health.

The northern New Jersey suburbs of New York City showed some of the highest levels of PFAS contamination in a national study of tap water in 44 locations nationwide, according to a report last year by Environmental Working Group, a leading national advocate for PFAS regulation.

The EPA proposed to set enforceable health standards for PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate), two of the most common of the chemicals, that were once used in consumer products including Teflon, and which have been linked with some cancers, immune system impairments, developmental problems in children, and other illnesses.

The step, called a regulatory determination, allows the agency to begin a process that may eventually establish enforceable health limits that would require water utilities to monitor and treat for the chemicals, whose formal name is Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl substances — to ensure compliance.

“The agency is proposing to regulate two contaminants, PFOS and PFOA,” EPA said in a statement. “Aggressively addressing PFAS is an ongoing and high priority effort for EPA.”

The EPA’s move is the latest result of its PFAS Action Plan, a wide-ranging document that it published in February 2019, saying it would decide by the end of last year whether to begin regulating PFOA and PFOS.

For PFOA and PFOS, the agency currently sets only a health advisory level in drinking water of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for the two chemicals, individually or combined, as the level below which human health would not be hurt. But many advocates — and the health authorities of some states including New Jersey — say that level is far too high to protect public health.

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