Thousands of Hoosiers are currently drinking water contaminated with toxic “forever chemicals.” A new federal proposal could soon change that.
The Biden administration announced a proposal to limit the amount of six toxic and persistent PFAS chemicals found in drinking water, the first enforceable regulation on the chemicals in their 80 years of existence.
The proposed national drinking water standards will require water systems to reduce PFOA and PFOS levels in drinking water to 4 parts-per-trillion, the lowest amount that can be reliably detected.
The proposal also targets four other chemicals, PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and GenX, also known as HFPO-DA. The four chemicals would be regulated as a mixture, meaning water systems will use a formula called a hazard index calculation to determine what level of the chemicals pose a risk.
Water systems will be required to notify the public if levels for any of the six PFAS chemicals exceed the standards.
“It’s the resilient and durable qualities that make these chemicals so useful in everyday life, but it’s also what makes them particularly harmful to people and the environment,” said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan. “We anticipate that when fully implemented this rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-related illnesses.”
The proposal could lead to cleaner drinking water for Hoosiers throughout the state, especially those that are served by 10 medium-sized water systems where Indiana Department of Environmental Management sampling has identified PFAS chemicals in treated drinking water.
USEFUL BUT TOXIC
The six chemicals targeted for regulation are part of a family of thousands of manmade chemicals known as PFAS.
PFAS chemicals have been used since the later 1940s to make products that are resistant to fire, water, grease and stains.
One of the first PFAS chemicals, PTFE, was used to make seals and gaskets at a plant that produced weapons-grade uranium during the World War II-era Manhattan Project. After the war, PTFE was used to make civilian products like Teflon pans and Gore-Tex clothing.
3M Co. created offshoot chemicals PFOA and PFOS in the 1950s. The chemicals were used in other military and civilian applications, like Scotchgard fabric protector and aqueous film forming firefighting foam.
Over decades, thousands more PFAS chemicals were created and used to make products for many industries at tens of thousands of sites across the U.S., including at least 150 in Indiana.
PFAS are sometimes called “forever chemicals” due to their persistence, their ability to remain in the environment without ever breaking down. That persistence has allowed the chemicals to travel around the globe. PFAS chemicals have been found in locations as remote as Mt. Everest and Antarctica.
The chemicals have also been found in the blood of hundreds of millions of Americans, staying there for at least five years after they are introduced.
They are also found locally. Limited IDEM testing of medium-sized water systems has found PFAS chemicals in the treated water of Indiana American Water – Charlestown, Rural Membership Water Corp. of Clark County, Dubois Water Utilities, Danville Water Works, Rensselaer Water Department, Canaan Utilities, B&B Water Project Inc. in Monroe County, Morgan County Rural Water Co., North Manchester Water Department and Tennyson Water Utility.
IDEM said it would release results of PFAS sampling at the state’s small water systems this spring and would test the largest water systems this year.
The widespread presence of PFAS chemicals is a problem for Hoosiers. The chemicals have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, liver damage, increased cholesterol levels and high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women. The chemicals have also been linked to decreased birth weight and decreased vaccine response in children.
The EPA’s proposed standards will be costly, especially for small water systems.
A 2021 assessment by the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators found that a 4-parts-per-trillion standard for PFOA and PFOS would cost the state of New York $1.5 billion to implement, or about $1.3 million per water system. A further $78 million per year would also be required for operation and maintenance.
The Biden administration planned for the change by allocating about $9 billion over five years for water systems to address PFAS through the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the bipartisan infrastructure law.
The money was allocated to help small or disadvantaged communities address emerging contaminants, like PFAS. The funding will help pay for scoping, planning, testing and remediation of emerging contaminants in source water.
The money will be distributed by the states through their state revolving funds. The Indiana Finance Authority will be in charge of deciding which water systems will receive the state’s share of the money, which is about $13.8 million for the 2022 fiscal year.
The first projects selected for emerging contaminant funding were chosen in October 2022, before the PFAS standards were announced.
The IFA will first fund Columbus City Utilities to address 1, 4 dioxane found in some of the city’s drinking water wells. The IFA also selected the Wakarusa Water Works, New Richmond Utilities and Spiceland Municipal Utilities to address iron and manganese in the town’s water system.
Communities have already asked the IFA for funding to address PFAS contamination. The City of Evansville has applied for State Revolving Fund money for a new water treatment plant and PFAS treatment.
The EPA has said it expects the proposed rule to be finalized by the end of the year.