News Brief

EPA May Limit PFAS in Water to Barely Detectable Levels

A proposed rule would regulate six PFAS “forever chemicals” in drinking water. The agency faces a backlash over the cost of compliance.

part of a water treatment plant, a large round tank full of dark blue water.

Many water utilities worry about the cost of complying with proposed new EPA drinking water standards for PFAS—and they are even more concerned about a looming Superfund cleanup bill they believe the original PFAS polluters should have to pay.

Photo: Florida Water Daily. License: CC BY 2.0.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed a new rule limiting per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS “forever chemicals”) in drinking water.

PFAS—a class of chemicals used to repel dirt and liquids from carpets and textiles and to make cookware “nonstick”—are ubiquitous in building materials and have been banned in some places. In addition to their environmental persistence and bioaccumulation, many PFAS are also known to increase the risk of low birth weight, immune issues, cancer, liver damage, and high cholesterol in humans.

The Safe Drinking Water Act authorizes EPA to set national regulations if they could reduce major health risks. In line with that, the proposed rule:

  • requires drinking water suppliers to monitor and publicly disclose levels of six specific PFAS: PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and HFPO-DA (so-called GenX chemicals)
  • identifies two legacy chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, as having no safe level in drinking water because new research suggests they are likely to be carcinogenic to humans, and sets a non-enforceable maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG) of zero for PFOA and PFOS
  • limits PFOA and PFOS to the lowest concentration at which they are reliably detectable, setting the legally enforceable maximum contaminant level (MCL) at 4 parts per trillion (ppt)
  • sets limits on the other chemicals both individually and as a mixture
  • requires drinking water utilities, if concentrations are greater than EPA allows, to install PFAS treatment technology or find other means of supplying uncontaminated water to customers

EPA did a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the savings from improved health outcomes would outweigh the costs borne by utilities, concluding that the investment would be worth it. Federal funds will also be available to improve water-treatment plants to remove PFAS.

But the agency will likely get pushback on its economic analysis from industry stakeholders. These groups are also eager to see the original PFAS polluters pick up the bill for disposal.

The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA), for example, has done its own analyses and believes EPA is underestimating the necessary investment in treatment technologies. As quoted by Lisa Friedman of the New York Times, AMWA’s CEO “is concerned about the overall cost drinking water utilities will incur to comply.” AMWA and several other trade groups have requested an extension of the public comment period, which is currently set to end May 30, 2023, so they have more time to review and critique the cost-benefit analysis.

Because EPA is also moving to designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances requiring cleanup, a coalition of water utility trade associations has called on Congress to ensure they won’t be held liable for remediation down the road. Drinking water and wastewater utilities will need to dispose of the PFAS somehow once they’re filtered out, potentially creating new hazardous waste sites. AMWA’s 2023 policy agenda argues, “Congress must assure that polluters cannot divert their Superfund cleanup responsibilities to water systems and their ratepayers.”

More on PFAS

Maine Outlawed PFAS in Everything: How Will That Work?

Thousands of PFAS Compounds Added to ILFI Red List

EPA to Attempt PFAS Regulation

PFAS in Building Products Ubiquitous, Says Report

For more information:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


Published May 1, 2023

Melton, P. (2023, April 19). EPA May Limit PFAS in Water to Barely Detectable Levels. Retrieved from

Add new comment

To post a comment, you need to register for a BuildingGreen Basic membership (free) or login to your existing profile.