On June 15, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released new health advisories for four per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, replacing prior health advisories from 2016.

The EPA is using its power under the Safe Drinking Water Act to issue health advisories for contaminants not yet subject to National Primary Drinking Water Regulation. Drinking water health advisories provide information on contaminants that can cause health effects and are known or anticipated to occur in drinking water. They are unenforceable and nonregulatory, but help to educate water system administrators and users on contaminants.

The new advisories indicate that some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of certain PFAS in water that are near zero. With nearly no known safe level of exposure to two particular PFAS, water systems could face daunting tasks of widespread testing, remediation and cleanup efforts ahead.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a family of chemicals used since the 1940s in a range of packaging materials and consumer products, particularly water-resistant, stain-resistant and non-stick items, as well as fire extinguishing foams. PFAS are water soluble, so over time they leach into groundwater and can contaminate drinking water, rivers, lakes and wildlife. The chemicals do not break down easily — they’re known as “forever chemicals” — and can be difficult and expensive to mitigate.

Studies suggest that human exposure to high levels of PFAS may lead to adverse health outcomes such as reproductive effects, developmental effects in children, increased cancer risk, and interference with the body’s immune and hormonal systems.

The new health advisories apply to the following PFAS:
• PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), used to make products non-stick, water resistant and stain resistant
• PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid), used as a stain repellent, fabric protector, and component of firefighting foam
• PFBS (perfluorobutane sulfonic acid and its potassium salt), considered a replacement for PFOA
• HFPO (hexafluoropropylene oxide) dimer acid and its ammonium salt (also known as “GenX chemicals”), used as a replacement for PFOS

Six years ago, the EPA released health advisories for PFOA and PFOS that set 70 parts per trillion, or ppt, as the maximum contaminant level in drinking water, below which there was believed to be no known or expected risk to health.

In 2020, Massachusetts took a stricter approach and established a 20 ppt state maximum contaminant level for a set of six specific PFAS known as PFAS6, which includes PFOA and PFOS.

The EPA’s new interim advisories indicate that some negative health effects may occur at as little as 0.004 ppt for PFOA and 0.02 ppt for PFOS. These new levels, however, are below levels that existing testing and analytical methods can detect, further complicating the ability of communities to address PFAS appropriately. Improving PFAS detection and precision in testing is one of several key priorities in the EPA’s PFAS strategy.

The EPA’s final health advisories for HFPO/GenX chemicals and PFBS are based on final assessments of their toxicity to animals. Finalizing advisories for these two chemicals was a goal of the PFAS Strategic Roadmap, the agency’s approach to research, restriction and remediation of PFAS over the next several years.

The new health advisory level for HFPO is 10 ppt. For PFBS, the advisory is set at 2,000 ppt. These two chemicals are not included in the Massachusetts PFAS6, so they are not currently subject to a stricter state standard, nor are they frequently included in statewide PFAS testing.

The health advisories on these two chemicals, as well as PFOA and PFOS, serve as a statement of intention for future regulation, as well as a request to water utilities and states to begin addressing PFAS contamination in their water systems if they have not already done so.

Next steps
The EPA is moving forward with its regulatory process, with a new PFAS National Drinking Water Regulation proposal expected this fall that is likely to address the four PFAS in the new health advisories in greater detail.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes $5 billion in grant funding to address known or suspected PFAS contamination over fiscal 2022 through 2026. States and territories must submit a letter of intent for grant funding by Aug. 15. Details are available on the EPA’s emerging contaminants website.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s State Revolving Fund project solicitation period for new drinking water and clean water projects is open through Aug. 12. PFAS mitigation and design projects have been identified as priorities for the 2023 round of funding.

The MassDEP is expected to issue further guidance in response to the EPA’s health advisories soon. Rep. Kate Hogan and Sen. Julian Cyr, co-chairs of the PFAS Interagency Task Force, have indicated that PFAS might be further addressed in a bill next session, with steps for accountability as well as funding for remediation efforts. Meanwhile, Attorney General Maura Healey is suing 13 manufacturers of PFAS, seeking accountability and payment for damages caused by PFAS contamination across the state.

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