The EPA says it cleans our tap water. Here’s what you need to know about PFAS

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday announced a proposal that, when it takes effect, would limit the level of a group of chemicals found in tap water that are linked to a range of negative health effects.

Per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, are chemicals in heat-resistant products and coatings, so they’re commonly found in clothing, furniture, non-stick pans and more. They are of concern, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because they do not break down in the environment. They circulate in the soil, contaminate drinking water and accumulate in wildlife and livestock – including most people in the US.

While having some in your body “doesn’t mean” you’ll develop a health effect, according to the CDC, some communities or cities have more contamination than others, and some people are at greater risk of PFA contamination. The new water guidelines, or limits, “will help provide states with the guidance they need to make decisions that best protect their communities,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a news release.

“This action has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses and marks an important step toward protecting all of our communities from these dangerous contaminants,” Reagan added.

Here’s what we know.

How harmful are PFAS?

PFASs, according to the Environmental Working Group, are called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down and accumulate in the environment and organisms over time. Like most potentially harmful chemicals or elements in our environment, the concern lies with greater quantity or prolonged exposure that increases the risk of adverse health effects.

Some health effects that may be associated with higher levels of PFAS include increased cholesterol, changes in the liver, increased risk of certain cancers, low birth weight, high blood pressure in pregnancy and even decreased vaccine response, according to the CDC. Young children and those who are pregnant may be more sensitive to PFAS than the general population, as are some industrial workers whose jobs involve these chemicals. To check for water contamination in your area, you can use EWG’s zip code search feature.

Groups like the EWG have called for more federal regulation of PFAS levels for years and have proposed limits that are significantly lower than those currently set nationally. However, states or cities can set their own water filtration levels and rules for PFAS.

The coating on non-stick pans is another source for trace amounts of PFAS, which accumulate over time.

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What will the new regulation do?

Once they go into effect, likely by the end of this year, the regulations will require public water systems to monitor for PFAS, the EPA said.

If the level of PFAS exceeds the limit set by the regulatory authorities, the public should be notified and water systems should reduce the level of contamination. The new acceptable level will be 4 parts per trillion — significantly lower than the previous guideline of 70 ppt.

As the New York Times and other media have reported, some concerns about how much water utilities will have to spend to implement the rules have been raised, including by the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers. The ACC, in part, criticized the EPA for the potential costs of the new limits and their “overly conservative” approach, and said two types of chemicals included in the new rule had already been phased out years ago.

When will it come into effect?

Cities, states, utilities and water treatment plants are not expected to change anything until the regulation is finalized, which the EPA expects by the end of 2023. Until then, the public can submit comments to the federal government through of this website.

For rules and tips about submitting comments to the EPA, the agency directs people here.

Will my water filter work against PFAS?

Unfortunately, if you use one of the popular activated carbon filters (like a Brita pitcher, for example) it may not remove PFAS as effectively or consistently as a reverse osmosis filter — a more expensive and involved filter that usually fits under your sink , in research from Duke University.

The Public Health and Safety Administration has a list of water filter devices that may filter out PFAS. As the Los Angeles Times reports, some of these efficient filters may work more like a pitcher, but they still need to be connected to a larger system.

While water is a major source of potential PFAS exposure (since we have to drink it every day to live), drinking more clean water is not the only way to reduce PFAS exposure. Because the chemicals are found in non-stick or repellent materials, turning off non-stick pans for stainless steel or cast iron cookware can also reduce the risk. You can also “boycott” plastic shipping containers, as CNN reports, and try not to use waterproof sprays, stain-resistant carpets, and anything else that might be coated with these chemicals.

PFASs extend beyond the kitchen. Some of these chemicals may be intentionally added to cosmetic products to “condition and smooth the skin,” according to the US Food and Drug Administration. Many types of makeup, shaving cream, lotions, and other products may contain them. Some common PFAS ingredients include PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), perfluorooctyl triethoxysilane, perfluorononyl dimethicone, perfluorodecalin and perfluorohexane, according to the FDA, so you can check your medicine cabinet labels if you’re concerned.

If you’re interested in doing a deeper look into cosmetic ingredients, the EWG has a page where you can look up personal care products and see how their ingredients are rated for potential health concerns. But when you’re taking a deep dive into ingredients like this, it’s also important to keep in mind the benefits of the products you’re using — reducing your risk of skin cancer with sunscreenfor an example, or treating painfully dry skin with lotion.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health advice or medical assistance. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

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