The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed new limits on PFAS “forever chemicals” in drinking water. But many drinking water systems in North Carolina that are tested for the chemicals are above that limit.
PFAS chemicals are used to make things like non-stick pans, food packaging and stain-resistant fabrics. They are considered “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the human body or the environment. The chemicals have been linked to increased risk for some cancers and developmental delays in children, among other health effects, according to the EPA.
“North Carolina has been leading efforts to address forever chemicals in our drinking water, and today’s EPA announcement provides additional federal support and a roadmap for the public water systems in our state,” said North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality Sec. Elizabeth Biser.
“Having clear direction on national drinking water standards supports DEQ’s work with public water systems to protect the people of North Carolina,” Biser said in a statement Tuesday.
Pollution from GenX, a PFAS chemical, has been a particular concern for people along the Cape Fear River in southeastern North Carolina.
In 2017, researchers found chemical company Chemours had been releasing GenX into the river, which is used for drinking water for about 300,000 people.
PFAS in drinking water is not only a problem along the Cape Fear. It’s now found in most drinking water in North Carolina and around the country.
The EPA’s new proposal sets a limit of 4 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, two types of PFAS compounds.
Last year, DEQ sampled water in 50 municipal and county water systems in North Carolina. More than 35 of those drinking water systems had PFAS levels measured above 4 ppt. The highest levels were in Fayetteville, Greensboro and Burlington, where some samples found levels of PFOS at more than 30 ppt.
The state measured PFOA and PFOS in drinking water, two types of PFAS chemicals.
The City of Greensboro publishes results from its bi-monthly PFAS testing on its website. Burlington and Fayetteville also publish the results of their testing, which is not as frequent.
State environmental regulators said they are planning to test hundreds of smaller water systems for PFAS.
“EPA has taken an essential step forward by proposing these critical drinking water standards, which are a necessary backstop to ensure that water flowing into our taps is not contaminated with PFOA, PFOS, GenX or the other PFAS included in today’s announcement,” said Geoff Gisler, with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“Existing law already requires all sources to disclose their PFAS pollution, and that permitting agencies have the responsibility now to reduce or eliminate discharges of these forever chemicals through the permitting process. If those existing laws are enforced, drinking water utilities will be able to meet these standards and keep our communities safe from the PFAS,” he said.
The EPA said it hopes to finalize the new drinking water rules by the end of the year.
“EPA expects that if fully implemented, the rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses,” the agency said.