WASHINGTON — For the first time, the federal government will require utilities to remove from drinking water two toxic chemicals found in everything from waterproof clothing to dental floss and even toilet paper, the Environmental Protection Agency announced on Tuesday.
Michael S. Regan, the administrator of the E.P.A., said the government intends to require near-zero levels of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, part of a class of chemicals known as known as PFAS. Exposure to the chemicals has been linked to cancer, liver damage, fertility and thyroid problems, asthma and other health effects.
“This is very significant,” Mr. Regan said in an interview. “This is the first time in U.S. history that we’ve set enforceable limits for PFAS pollution.”
The synthetic chemicals are so ubiquitous in modern life that nearly all Americans, including newborn babies, carry PFAS in their bloodstream. Dubbed “forever chemicals” because they do not break down and persist in the environment, the chemicals seep into soil and water. As many as 200 million Americans are exposed to PFAS in their tap water, according to a peer reviewed 2020 study.
Last year the E.P. A. found the chemicals could cause harm at levels “much lower than previously understood” and that almost no level of exposure was safe. It advised that drinking water contain no more than 0.004 parts per trillion of perfluorooctanoic acid and 0.02 parts per trillion of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. Previously, the agency had advised that drinking water contain no more than 70 parts per trillion of the chemicals.
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The E.P.A. will accept public comments on the proposed regulation for 60 days before it will take effect and become the legal limit.
Public health groups and environmental advocates said the crackdown was long overdue.
“Regulating these six highly toxic PFAS chemicals in drinking water is a historic start to protecting our families and communities,” said Anna Reade, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. “We cannot safeguard public health until we get off this toxic treadmill of regulating one PFAS at a time when thousands of other PFAS remain unregulated.”
Mark Ruffalo, the actor who has used his celebrity status to lobby for stronger drinking water standards, said the government’s decision was a long time in the making. “And I know it took a lot of political guts,” he said.
Mr. Ruffalo, who said he was inspired to take action after reading a New York Times profile of Rob Bilott, a corporate attorney who took on Dupont said he was frustrated to find that industrial chemicals known both by manufacturers and regulators to be dangerous to humans were being discharged daily into the air and water. (Mr. Ruffalo later portrayed Mr. Bilott in the 2019 film “Dark Waters.”)
“Over and over I see the same model play out,” Mr. Ruffalo said. “It’s a coziness that the industry has to power. They all game the system in order to make money over people’s health.”
Some Republicans and industry groups criticized the proposed regulation and said the Biden administration has created an impossible standard that will cost manufacturers and municipal water agencies billions of dollars. Industries would have to stop discharging the chemicals into waterways, and water utilities would have to test for the PFAS chemicals and remove them. Communities with limited resources will be hardest hit by the new rule, they warned.
The American Water Works Association, which represents 4,300 utilities that supply 80 percent of the country’s drinking water, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, which represents some of the largest public utilities in the United States, also did not respond.
An estimate prepared for the American Water Works Association by Black & Veach, an engineering consultancy group found that it could cost as much as $38 billion nationally to remove enough of the chemicals to meet a strict E.P.A. limit. That does not include costs for filter material and testing.
Mr. Regan said the plan will protect communities from exposure to chemicals that are known to be dangerous and hold polluters accountable. He also said money from a $9 billion package that Congress gave the E.P.A. last year as part of an infrastructure bill to invest in water programs will go toward helping states with costs.
In addition to endangering human health, PFAS chemicals also pose a problem for wildlife. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization, has created a map based on hundreds of studies showing where the pollutants have been detected in animals, fish and birds, threatening species like dolphins and endangered sea turtles.
Water utilities said they have been preparing for tough standards. Across the country, cities and states have already been cracking down on PFAS in drinking water. States that have proposed or adopted limits include Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.