The word “forever” usually has positive overtones. We think of making “forever memories” and “forever homes.” But the phrase “forever chemicals” can sound terrifying. As the name implies, they are chemicals that linger in an environment or body and don’t break down.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS, have been used since the ’50s in consumer products. Over the years, we have learned more about them and discovered that they can harm health even at low levels. They are all around us. Since 2016, some PFAS chemicals have been phased out. More are being taken off the market all the time. Yet, they take about 25 years to leave once they are in the body.
The EPA has proposed a national drinking water standard for PFAS chemicals for the first time ever. There are thousands of PFAS chemicals, but water systems would now monitor for six. They would notify the public if they rose above a set level. The six they picked have the most obvious impact on human health.
Water systems would need new testing abilities. States will also need to figure out if they will install treatment facilities or switch to new water sources. It is going to be an expensive process. Many are concerned that the price may be passed on to consumers. However, PFAS chemicals cause medical problems that cost $1.2 billion every year. In the long run, the cost of changing our water system versus the medical bills may be cheaper. And the benefits for people’s health will be enormous. Over time, the EPA says, it will prevent thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of serious illnesses.
“No one should ever wonder if the PFAS in their tap water will one day make them sick,” said Emily Donovan, Clean Cape Fear co-founder. “We all deserve access to health-protective drinking water. It’s a basic human right.”
Some states already test for PFAS in the water and have their own limits. This is the first federal limit. Other states do not. Estimates believe that 40 percent of municipal water make exceed the new limits.
While it is a significant step forward for human health and clean drinking water, it’s also a massive undertaking. “This is a huge deal, in terms of protecting public health, but also in terms of what it’s going to take to accomplish,” says Michelle Crimi, an environmental engineer at Clarkson Univ.
Water utility companies will have to invest large sums of money and work to meet the standards. At the same time, scientists at the Department of Defense are working on technology to clean PFAS chemicals from groundwater before they can enter drinking supplies. While the technology has worked in lab tests, it hasn’t been used in the field.
The EPA has made $2 billion available in public funding to update water systems. But, some have estimated the cost of upgrading all the necessary systems will be around $400 billion. The cost may be passed on to nearby polluters through fees. However, it may raise the price of water.