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EPA PFAS Regulations: A Step Forward in Safeguarding Public Health

Rachel Lark - May 7, 2024

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Awareness of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) has grown in recent years, with greater concern for their adverse health effects. Fortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to create change and implement safer drinking water standards. Recent EPA PFAS regulations are a significant step toward decreasing contamination and protecting public health.

Here is a breakdown of the new PFAS standards in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and why limiting these chemicals is essential for preventing disease. 

What Are the Latest EPA PFAS Regulations?

On April 10, 2024, the Biden Administration made history with the first nationwide standards on PFAS concentrations in drinking water. Also known as “forever chemicals,” the regulations will limit exposure for 100 million people, preventing severe illness, cancer, and possible death.

Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the EPA plans to spend $1 billion to assist states in implementing new PFAS testing and improving public water treatment systems and private wells. Another $12 million will go toward general advancements to the U.S. drinking water. 

PFAS are human-engineered chemicals commonly found in consumer products. Since the 1950s, these compounds have accumulated in human bodies and the environment without the ability to break down.

Although PFAS are everywhere and have gained notable attention over the years, recent contamination of Gen X — a replacement for legacy PFAS like perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) — in North Carolina’s Cape Fear River stands out. 

Recent findings from a study conducted in Wilmington and Fayetteville indicate 69% of participants have PFAS levels between 2-20 nanograms (ng) per milliliter (mL), putting them at a high risk for health complications. Another 29% underwent the most exposure, at more than 20 ng/mL. Experts recommend these individuals test for thyroid conditions, testicular and kidney cancers, and ulcerative colitis. 

How Will PFAS Regulations Protect Public Health?

The latest EPA PFAS regulations will protect people from adverse health outcomes by limiting chemical concentrations in drinking water. Water treatment facilities must take measures to eliminate PFAS chemicals in public drinking water resources or face consequences. 

Scientists hope less PFAS accumulation in people’s bodies will result in fewer public health risks and lower mortality from severe illnesses. For instance, President Biden is eager to cut cancer rates in half by 2047 with the changes. 

According to the recent White House press release, implementing PFAS regulations will achieve the following:

  • Improve contamination cleanups by delivering tests for 40 PFAS in groundwater, biosolids, and fish, and detecting 30 airborne compounds. 
  • Protect firefighters and military personnel from fire-suppressing products containing PFAS and expand cancer screening.
  • Replace PFAS-containing fire suppressants with fluorine-free firefighting foams, protecting firefighters, communities, and the environment.
  • Delivering updated PFAS resources to health care professionals to aid patients with PFAS exposure. 
  • Eliminate PFAS from food packaging to decrease public dietary exposure. 
  • Certify products with labels indicating there is no presence of PFAS. 

Ultimately, transparency will be a cornerstone of the changes, as water management facilities must notify the public when PFAS concentrations exceed health standards. This will allow people to make more informed decisions about their drinking water. 

6 Health Effects of Forever Chemicals

Research on the health risks of PFAS has long been limited or skewed, but several recent studies have shown significant impacts on one’s endocrinological, reproductive, and oncological risks. Here are six known ways forever chemicals affect public health.

1. Cancer Risk

Numerous investigations have unearthed heightened PFAS carcinogenicity, with doctors linking exposure to kidney, testicular, thyroid, breast, prostate, and endometrial and ovarian cancers. 

Elevated PFAS concentrations were found in Air Force service members with testicular tumors who drank contaminated water. Another assessment found an increasing volume of aggressive prostate cancer cases over a six-year period after PFAS and PFOS exposure. 

2. Hormone Disruption

PFAS are known hormone disruptors, with scientists now linking the chemicals to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Affecting 7%-10% of women of reproductive age — and deemed the leading cause of infertility — PCOS has no known cause, treatment or cure. 

The recent study is significant in pinpointing a potential source for the condition. Findings suggest a 29% and 39% higher risk of PCOS when exposed to chlorinated perfluoroalkyl ether sulfonic acid or hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid, respectively — found in food packaging, stain-resistant products, nonstick coatings, and firefighting foams.

3. Higher Cholesterol

High cholesterol is possibly associated with PFAS exposure. According to a 2023 study of adult women 46-56 years old, these chemicals had a negative impact on LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Individuals with high cholesterol and PFAS exposure are also linked to prediabetes. High cholesterol may lead to blood clots, possible heart attack and stroke. 

4. Childhood Development Problems

Numerous studies have shown a correlation between exposure to forever chemicals in young children and later maturation. Per a recent investigation, boys and girls aged 6-16 demonstrated stunted breast and testicular development when exposed to PFAS. 

Another study suggests a higher prevalence of autism and developmental disorders in children exposed to PFOAs and perfluoroheptanoic acid.

5. Poor Immunity

More studies have revealed how PFAS reduces immunity — cases of asthma, allergic rhinitis and eczema are more common among mothers and adults with exposure to PFOS, PFOA and perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA). Other studies on PFAS indicate a lower immune response when receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Perhaps most alarming, children exposed to PFOS and PFOA at birth — after exposure through the mother’s blood serum — experienced a 40% decrease in diphtheria antibodies by the time they turned 5 years old. This made them 2.4-4.2 times more likely to remain unprotected from tetanus and diphtheria vaccines by age 7. Conversely, some studies indicate an overactive immune response. 

6. Lower Birth Weights

Women with higher PFAS plasma concentrations early in their pregnancy — at approximately 9.6 weeks gestation — have given birth to underweight children, especially if they do not meet dietary folate requirements.

The research is consistent with another study suggesting that PFOAs could predict preterm births with decreased birth weights. However, investigators note other factors could contribute to early labor and delivery. 

The Right Direction for Eliminating PFAS

The latest EPA PFAS regulations are a groundbreaking step toward clean drinking water and better health outcomes. Although there is far more work to be done, officials are taking matters seriously — a relief for those affected by high PFAS contamination.

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About the author

Rachel Lark

Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of Environment.co. A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.