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EPA Proposes Listing PFAS As Drinking Water Contaminants

Firefighting foam that contains a chemical known as a PFAS.
U.S. Army Africa
PFAS are substances found in firefighting foams and protective gear, as well as many household products, like pizza boxes and rain jackets.

On Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency included a category of chemicals known as PFAS in a new draft list of water contaminants.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a family of more than 4,700 man-made chemicals, and they can be found in household products, like non-stick pans, rain jackets, candy wrappers, and pizza boxes. They're also known as "forever chemicals," since they stick around for a very long time—including in the human body. They can also cause health problems.

The EPA is proposing to include PFAS in its list of water contaminants, and that lays the groundwork for potential regulation down the road.

"This is a really promising move from the federal level," said Anna Reade, with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Because before, whether or not you had data on these chemicals on whether they were in your drinking water, depended on local government or state governments taking the charge to actually require testing."

The draft proposes to monitor for some PFAS in drinking water to get a better idea of how prevalent they are, and who is being exposed to them.

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974 requires the EPA to issue a new list every five years of unregulated contaminants to be monitored by public water systems. In a previous cycle, some PFAS chemicals were tested, but Reade said the reporting limits were really high.

"So we didn’t get really good data from that test," she said. "This time, the draft proposed is much lower reporting limits, so we can get more sensitive readouts of what of these chemicals are in our drinking water."

The EPA is seeking public comment on the draft.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Maggie Mullen is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. Her work has aired on NPR, Marketplace, Science Friday, and Here and Now. She was awarded a 2019 regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her story on the Black 14.
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