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PFAS Regulations in the U.S.


Amid fast-moving technological and scientific progress, the world is also grappling with a growing understanding of the human impacts of these advances. We’re still learning how our decisions influence the natural resources we rely on and how they, in turn, affect us. Examples of this cyclical relationship are more noticeable than ever — particularly in the case of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

PFAS, often called “forever chemicals” for their striking longevity in both natural systems and living bodies, are fast becoming a hot topic in public health. As ongoing research uncovers high PFAS contamination levels and possible health effects, regulators around the world work to protect everyday people. This is no easy task, as decades of PFAS use have now built up in air, water, soil and more.

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently established a new plan for PFAS regulation, particularly in drinking water. This is especially relevant as water is among the most common sources of PFAS exposure. (It’s important to note that these regulations will cover municipal water supplies but not private wells.)

To better understand these regulations, why they matter and how they impact your tap water, we’ll take a closer look at key decisions from the U.S. and other countries. We’ll also cover the basics of the chemicals themselves and — perhaps most importantly — how you can protect your home’s water supply.

The Latest PFAS Regulations: New EPA Guidelines for Water Quality

On April 10, 2024, the EPA announced its final National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) for six PFAS chemicals. As the first nationally legally enforceable standard for PFAS in drinking water, this regulation is an important step in reaching the Biden-Harris Administration’s broader goals for improving water quality. The rule is part of a wider effort to address forever chemical exposure in the U.S.

What Are The NPDWR Rules?

The NPDWR establishes legally enforceable levels for six forever chemicals:

  • PFOA
  • PFOS
  • PFHxS
  • PFNA
  • PFBS

Limitations also cover chemicals containing two or more PFAS types. This is part of a “Hazard Index,” a commonly used EPA method for establishing limits on chemical mixtures where individual component levels may not have adverse effects but can be a risk when combined.

The new rule establishes guidelines based on two types of limitations: Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) and Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLGs). While MCLs are legally enforceable limits, MCLGs are health-based and non-enforceable, acting more as public health goals.

The limits are as follows:

Compound Final MCL (est. April 2024; not enforceable until 2029) Final MCLG (Goal)
PFOA 4.0 parts per trillion (ppt) Zero
PFOS 4.0 ppt Zero
PFHxS 10 ppt 10 ppt
PFNA 10 ppt 10 ppt
HFPO-DA (also called GenX Chemicals) 10 ppt 10 ppt
Mixtures containing two or more of PFHxS, PFNA, HFPO-DA and PFBS Hazard Index of 1 (unitless)
Hazard Index of 1 (unitless)

What Are The Goals of PFAS Regulations?

According to the EPA, the regulation is intended to use the coming years to “prevent PFAS exposure in drinking water for approximately 100 million people, prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses.” This aligns with other EPA goals and the wider response of the Biden-Harris Administration, enabling the country to respond to these goals on multiple fronts.

The regulation includes specific requirements to enable this progress:

  • Public works water systems must monitor for these PFAS. Initial monitoring must be completed by 2027, followed by ongoing compliance monitoring.
  • Water systems must provide the public with data on PFAS levels in drinking water beginning in 2027.
  • If monitoring shows levels exceeding the MCLs, public systems must implement reduction solutions by 2029.
  • Starting in 2029, violation of these MCLs obligates water systems to take immediate reduction action and notify the public of the violation.

How Did The EPA Choose These Rules?

As with any public health goal, these specific PFAS guidelines came about after years of research and prior action, in this case going back at least as far as 2002. However, the story of the PFAS regulation itself began closer to March 2021 with the release of key regulatory determinations, or decisions on whether the EPA should make rules for specific contaminants. This is a requirement under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), which directs the EPA to select items from a Contaminant Candidate List and consider drinking water regulations to control them. In this case, the EPA’s regulatory determinations included a final decision to regulate PFAS, particularly PFOA and PFOS.

In 2023, the EPA released a proposal for the national regulation. It evaluated feedback from multiple consultations, stakeholder engagement activities and over 120,000 public comments throughout the process. It used its existing Hazard Index framework and standing definitions for two types of limitations:

MCLGs: This represents the contaminant level below which there is no known or expected human health risk.
MCLs: This represents the highest contaminant level allowed in drinking water and considers feasibility based on cost and available treatment technology. It’s set as close to MCLGs as possible.

The final rule was announced in 2024. As noted above, it will be implemented and enforced in three- and five-year increments.

What Should The Public Know?

Although the new National Primary Drinking Water Regulation and related guidelines are highly relevant to everyday citizens, there’s no action required on your part. Your only responsibility is to learn whatever is necessary to ensure your home’s tap water supply is as safe as possible, which may require efforts outside of what the EPA rules protect. For example, professional in-home water testing and treatment are neither required nor regulated by the EPA, but both can act as powerful solutions before, during and after new regulations are put into effect.

Other PFAS Regulations

The new NPDWR is the nation’s first enforceable standard for PFAS in drinking water, but it isn’t the only regulation helping guide public health progress in this area. There are other rules in play, creating a web of interconnected activity that will help address PFAS in numerous contexts.

Examples include:

Additional Government Actions

The EPA has established key actions in addition to and complementing the drinking water rule, including:

  • Declaring PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).
  • Enabling investigation, cleanup and financial restitution related to PFAS contamination.
  • Following the PFAS Strategic Roadmap originally announced in 2021 and creating regular Progress Reports.
  • Dedicating $9 billion in funding to address PFAS and other emerging contaminants in drinking water.
  • Dedicating an additional $12 billion to general drinking water investments, including PFAS treatment.
  • Releasing updated Interim Guidance for destroying and disposing of PFAS and the materials that contain them.
  • Addressing ongoing utilization of PFAS by preventing companies from starting or resuming the manufacture/processing of 329 forever chemicals.
  • Releasing three improved methods of environmental PFAS measurement.
  • Announcing the addition of seven PFAS to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI).
  • Cutting PFAS from government custodial contracts.

In addition, actions are also being taken to reduce broader PFAS impacts on Americans. This includes addressing firefighting foam containing PFAS, supporting healthcare providers whose patients have exposure questions and phasing out forever chemicals in food packaging.

Safe Drinking Water Act

The Safe Drinking Water Act protects the nation’s public water system by guiding the EPA in the management, control and limitation of key contaminants, now including PFAS. While this Act doesn’t protect private wells, it helps create guidelines and define limitations that well owners can use to scrutinize their own water quality.

Toxic Substances Control Act

This Act, also called the TSCA, gives the EPA the authority to require reporting, record-keeping and testing for certain contaminants. It covers key elements of a toxic substance’s lifecycle, from production or importation to proper disposal. The EPA has used the TSCA to stop companies from producing certain PFAS.

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act

CERCLA, also known as Superfund, focuses on cleaning up hazardous waste sites, establishing that manufacturers, transporters and facility owners should be responsible for the related costs. The Act plays an important role in controlling PFAS mitigation, including classification of certain PFAS as hazardous substances. However, the EPA has also clarified that it doesn’t intend to pursue certain entities such as farmers, fire departments and water utilities.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

This Act, called RCRA, gives the EPA “the authority to control hazardous waste from cradle to grave.” It works alongside CERCLA to manage:

  • Generation
  • Transportation
  • Treatment
  • Storage
  • Disposal

In early 2024, the EPA proposed adding nine PFAS to the RCRA list of hazardous constituents. This change requires that the chemical has proven carcinogenic or other effects on living organisms.

Clean Air Act

The Clean Air Act, established to regulate all sources of air emissions, includes a specific section for PFAS requiring certain chemicals to be listed as hazardous air pollutants. This is particularly relevant as forever chemicals are expected to be more common indoors due to lower air circulation rates and the presence of consumer products with intentionally added PFAS.

International Response

The U.S. isn’t the only country acting against PFAS contamination. For example, the Government of Canada has already added forever chemicals to its List of Toxic Substances under Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999. It conducts regular monitoring and will be updating its drinking water guidelines over the next few years. Similarly, the European Union has established guidelines for tracking PFAS levels in food and the United Nations Stockholm Convention outlines risk proposals for related compounds.

Why PFAS Regulations Matter

Public health regulations are a visible, actionable step toward collaborative success. However, they’re more than a government’s statement of intent; regulations like those controlling PFAS contamination have a significant role in identifying and mitigating past, present and future human impacts. Examples include:

Preventing Further Damage

Many regulations have dual goals: addressing past mistakes and preventing further damage. These objectives naturally complement one another, particularly when regulators outline clear steps and expectations.

By preventing new PFAS creation and utilization, authorities end the cyclical relationship between this human activity and the impacts that come back to us from our environment. The idea is to ensure that future generations can dedicate time, effort and resources to new projects instead of trying to fix the same problems we’re managing today.

However, this doesn’t just benefit the world of tomorrow. These efforts also support current efforts by enabling natural systems to begin the recovery process as soon as possible.

Increasing Awareness

Regulations and the public discussion surrounding them are excellent tools for raising awareness. This kind of visible progress helps citizens see the effects of human activity as a topic impacting their everyday lives, not just a matter for scientists and politicians. It also provides invaluable information about how a government goes beyond “talk” to make demonstrable progress in protecting its people from issues like PFAS pollution.

Leveraging Relevant Research

Regulators like the EPA are often informed by highly specific scientific studies and identifiable data. This, in turn, helps researchers identify knowledge gaps and pursue the most relevant work. It may also create new opportunities — not just in funding, but in encouraging college and even high school students to pursue scientific careers. That’s especially important in the study of forever chemicals, which aren’t yet fully understood and will require more attention in the coming years.

Identifying Responsibility

It’s not enough to say that PFAS levels must be controlled; regulations also establish who is responsible for the necessary steps. This creates a sense of obligation and accountability, ensuring the right people follow the rules. For example, everyday citizens don’t have much responsibility under the EPA’s latest regulations, but consumer product manufacturers, public water systems and other parties have new legal duties.

Creating Frameworks for Progress

With so many stakeholders and moving parts, progress in environmental health can be difficult to plan. Fortunately, regulations act as a framework for the future, providing a clear path forward while making room for amendments or updates later on. Specific guidelines and a PFAS action plan make it possible to organize resources, identify potential challenges and track progress toward an agreed-upon water standard.

What To Know About PFAS

While the EPA’s guidelines don’t demand action from the average person, it’s important to understand the background and context that make such regulations necessary. However, with thousands of substances in the PFAS chemical family, it can be difficult to keep track of relevant information.

Here’s a look at the most up-to-date understanding of PFAS:

What We Know

PFAS chemicals have been used since the 1950s. A unique molecular structure of linked carbon and fluorine atoms makes these substances resilient and persistent in the environment — characteristics that benefited firefighting foam, waterproof clothing, nonstick cookware and other items over the years but are now proving problematic. These chemicals can stay in your body for years and have been known to build up in the blood over time.

The two most common PFAS compound types are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanoic sulfonic acid (PFOS). A large portion of forever chemical research has been dedicated to these two types.

However, the story of PFAS substances goes far beyond that. Decades of utilization have allowed different types of compounds to travel through natural environments, impacting soil, air and water quality around the world. In this way, PFAS move up the food chain through plants and animals in a process called bioaccumulation, which may lead to higher PFAS levels in human diets.

Food and water are perhaps the best-known sources of exposure. For example, recent research has found that at least 45% of American tap water has one or more types of PFAS and 69% of Canadian groundwater samples exceeded Health Canada’s PFAS criteria. This ubiquity is a concern because research has already shown potential connections between PFAS and certain human health effects. These include:

  • Certain types of cancer
  • Increased cholesterol levels
  • Decreased immune and vaccine responses
  • Liver damage

The risk and severity of these health effects depend on a variety of factors such as individual sensitivity and exposure level, but additional research is required to establish clearer connections.

What We Don’t Know

Because there are thousands of PFAS substances, it’s difficult to research the precise effects of every one. This and other challenges have led to certain gaps in our understanding of this toxic substance family.

The most pressing problem for most people is a lack of clear information about human health effects. While early research has shown potential connections as noted above, other work has shown a lack of correlation. Additionally, many preliminary studies are performed on rodents, and researchers are still learning how the effects differ in humans.

There’s also limited information about toxicity levels between different PFAS types. This leads to several areas of uncertainty:

  • Impacts on human and environmental health
  • Movement through food chains and natural systems
  • Differing characteristics and longevity

It’s clear that we need more research on PFAS overall — but in the meantime, everyday people have many options for addressing these chemicals, particularly in tap water.

How To Manage PFAS in Drinking Water

If you want to learn more about whether PFAS or other contaminants of concern are in your water, you have a few options. Currently, at-home testing for PFAS in drinking water is available, but the tests must then be sent to a qualified laboratory for results. Your local water professionals can help you with this process.

Some municipalities are already testing for PFAS, so if you have city water, you can also start by looking at your local Consumer Confidence Report (CCR). Your water supplier is required to publish these annual drinking water quality reports annually.

If you find out you have PFAS in your tap water, or if you just want the reassurance of overall water quality protection, there are a few considerations in choosing a water treatment solution. First, be sure to find a system that is tested and certified by an accredited third-party organization to NSF/ANSI 53 standards for PFOA/PFOS.

Reverse osmosis (RO) drinking water filtration solutions are among the best options. Because they typically leverage multiple stages of filtration, advanced RO systems can address the most common PFAS types – and they also offer the benefit of comprehensive filtration for a wide range of other potential contaminants. For example, these systems are also a top choice for reducing the presence of microplastics in tap water, because these tiny particles are trapped by the semipermeable membrane that enables the RO process. With the right filtration stages, they also can address concerns like lead, bacteria, arsenic and more.

Standard versions of popular simple filtration solutions like refrigerator or pitcher filters likely aren’t equipped to address the complexity of forever chemicals. While they may offer more advanced options that can target PFOA and PFOS, keep in mind that these choices usually aren’t able to address as broad a range of other water issues that reverse osmosis can.

Protect Your Drinking Water Quality

Although the EPA’s new NPDWR and other regulations are working to protect the public water system, many of these effects won’t be fully realized for years to come. To improve your home’s water quality in the meantime, you’ll need to reach out to local experts for a PFAS test (your local Culligan location can provide this) and filtration system recommendations.

Of course, PFAS aren’t the only possible contaminant. Learn about other problems and solutions in 30 minutes or less with a free, in-home water test and consultation. Schedule yours today.

*Contaminants may not be present in your drinking water.

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