In March of 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a new rule that would set limits on six per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) known to occur in drinking water. By establishing legally enforceable levels for these PFAS with a nationwide standard, the EPA seeks to fulfill a key commitment of its PFAS Strategic Roadmap. But as with any new standard that affects environment, health, and safety (EHS), businesses need to understand how they might be impacted—and how to stay within the new limits, if necessary.
It’s another example of how regulatory change is a constant challenge for EHS managers. Here’s how these new PFAS developments could potentially affect your compliance obligations.
First synthesized in the 1940s, PFAS are a class of chemicals that are used (or have been used) in a wide variety of industrial and consumer applications. They are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they degrade very slowly—a quality that is very desirable in the context of certain products, but also potentially very detrimental to human health.
Common applications of and/or products that contain PFAS include:
Firefighting foams used at U.S. military bases and civilian airports, as well as by state and local fire departments;
Stain-resistant fabrics and carpets;
Other products that resist or repel water, grease, and oil; and
When PFAS enter the body, they can remain there as long as eight years by some estimates due to their resistance to degradation—and this gives them time to accumulate to unhealthy levels. While the risks vary depending on the type of PFAS, adverse health effects are known to include:
Developmental impacts on infants and children,
Lowered fertility in women,
Interference with natural hormones,
Increased cholesterol levels,
Effects on immune system function, and
Potential increases in cancer risk.
Many of these ailments could possibly lead to premature death. The most common PFAS exposure route is ingestion via drinking water—which is the EPA’s rationale for moving to set limits with new regulation.
The EPA’s proposed PFAS National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) will target the following six chemicals:
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA),
Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS),
Perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA),
Hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (HFPO-DA, also known as GenX Chemicals),
Perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS), and
Perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS).
EPA is proposing legally enforceable Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) of only 4.0 parts per trillion (ppt) for both PFOA and PFOS—essentially, the lowest possible level that can be reliably measured. EPA further encourages completely eliminating these two chemicals entirely from drinking water by proposing health-based, non-enforceable Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLGs) of zero.
EPA proposes the other four PFAS chemicals—PFNA, HFPO-DA, PFHxS, and PFBS—be regulated as a mixture. This means that each are tested for individually, but the risk is assessed within a Hazard Index by their combined presence (which, according to the proposed regulation, is what causes compounding health effects).
The proposed rule (regarding which EPA provides a wide variety of information and support materials) would also require the following of public water systems:
Monitoring for these six PFAS chemicals,
Notifying the public of PFAS levels, and
Reducing PFAS levels in drinking water when they exceed proposed standards.
EPA notes that the proposed PFAS NPDWR does not require any action on the part of utilities or businesses until it is finalized. However, it is anticipated that the regulation will be finalized by the end of 2023—and so the time to prepare is now.
As it is intended to protect public drinking water, the EPA’s PFAS proposal will likely have the biggest impact on water utilities. Other entities should also expect to be affected, however, including the following:
Primary and secondary PFAS manufacturers,
Organizations that use PFAS in the course of their operations, and
Companies that manage environmental media (e.g., wastewater) contaminated with PFAS—this would also include companies that treat drinking water within their facilities for facility use.
If any of these describe your organization, your EHS team should expect significantly increased compliance liability and risk as a result of this changing regulatory landscape. What actions should you take to meet these strict new limitations? Here are a few basic necessities:
Use cleaner water sources. It stands to reason that water sources with less or no PFAS contamination will require less treatment. This is part of the challenge the new rule poses for manufacturers of PFAS—their wastewater will have to be monitored closely to avoid contaminating existing water sources.
Identify and use safe, secure new technologies and treatment methods. Monitoring to the minute level required by the proposed rule—and treating water to meet new standards—will require a technology upgrade for many organizations and utilities.
Destroy the chemicals whenever possible. High-temperature incineration of PFAS and PFAS-containing materials has been proven effective for destroying the chemicals covered by EPA’s new proposed rule.
Follow successful examples. Some organizations have already succeeded in removing PFAS from their operations. Take lessons learned from these efforts and apply them within your own company.
Like all aspects of chemical compliance management, PFAS rules are sure to present challenges for EHS leaders. But with a proactive, vigilant approach, achieving compliance is possible.
The extent to which EPA’s new proposed PFAS regulations will affect your company is highly dependent on your specific industry and operations. But the PFAS NPDWR is only one aspect of PFAS regulation—release reporting rules under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) are also proposed or in effect, and there are also existing or proposed PFAS regulations at the state and/or local levels. You can’t comply with all of these regulatory developments if you don’t know about them, and ignorance is no excuse if you are ever inspected or audited.
To stay one step ahead, EHS leaders must remain alert to rule changes large and small in order to stay compliant and adapt organizational health and safety strategies in a constantly evolving regulatory environment. Dakota Software’s EHS Regulatory Alerts notify you of changes from EPA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Department of Transportation (DOT)—all summarized and interpreted by our team of regulatory experts.
Discover more about our EHS Regulatory Alerts here—sign up today.