In a significant move to address growing concerns about water safety, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expanding the list of toxins that must be reported by drinking water utilities.
The focus is on "forever chemicals" known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), prompting a need for substantial infrastructure investment.
"We are now in the process of establishing a drinking water standard for about six different PFAS," revealed Radhika Fox, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water, to CNBC.
Starting on November 30, water quality reports due on July 1, 2025, and thereafter must include information on PFAS levels exceeding four parts per trillion in drinking water.
What is PFAS?
Tom Neltner, senior director of safer chemicals at the Environmental Defense Fund, explained, “These per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances are made by different companies that take fluorine and attach it to two carbon molecules, and they stick around forever. That’s why they got the nickname ‘forever chemicals.’”
PFAS have entered the environment through various sources such as textile manufacturing, plating facilities, aviation manufacturing, plastics, resins, and molds, according to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
Cheryl Norton, chief operating officer for American Water, the largest publicly traded water and wastewater utility company in the U.S., expressed concern over the financial burden associated with meeting the reporting requirement.
Cost and treatment
She said, “It’s going to cost about $47 billion in infrastructure investments across the U.S. to treat for PFAS at four parts per trillion. And we think that the ongoing costs are going to be about $700 million a year.”
Approximately 300 million people in the U.S. rely on public water systems, and at least 45% of tap water is known to contain PFAS, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
“We have been monitoring for PFAS for some time, and we see that it’s occurring in drinking water systems at levels of concern,” said Fox.
“Not only is it a carcinogen, but that chemical also undermines our immune system. It undermines the effectiveness of vaccines, which is a big issue,” Neltner said.
Sydney Evans, a senior science analyst at the Environmental Working Group, said, “Most tap water is probably not going to have a system set up at the treatment plant where PFAS is going to be able to be treated. In the future, hopefully, that will happen, but at the moment, there’s still PFAS in a lot of people’s water.”
While some experts recommend additional filtration at home as a temporary solution, Norton emphasized the need for accountability, stating, "We really believe that the people who are responsible for the contamination should have to pay for this, not our customers."