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EPA announces new and updated health advisories for PFAS

Parts of the Cape Fear River near Fayetteville, N.C., are contaminated with a PFAS compound called GenX. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is surveying residents in the area about their health.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
Parts of the Cape Fear River near Fayetteville, N.C., are contaminated with a PFAS compound called GenX.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced new and updated health advisories for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS.

The announcement came from EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox while speaking at the 3rd National PFAS Convention in Wilmington on Wednesday.

“Today’s actions highlight EPA’s commitment to use the best available science to tackle PFAS pollution, protect public health, and provide critical information quickly and transparently,” said Fox in a press release.

There are thousands of different kinds of PFAS, but the advisories announced Wednesday focus on four. PFAS are found in common household items and in several North Carolina rivers, including the Cape Fear River, which is the primary drinking water source for hundreds of thousands of people.

The chemicals are linked to cancer, higher cholesterol levels, and decreased vaccine response in children. PFAS are commonly called 'forever chemicals' because they do not degrade over time once in the environment.

The EPA issued health advisories for the first time for two PFAS known as PFBS and GenX. PFBS is perfluorobutane sulfonic acid and its potassium salt. GenX is hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid and its ammonium salt. These advisories are 10 parts per trillion (ppt) for GenX and 2,000 ppt for PFBS.

The agency is warning that the compounds are more dangerous than previously thought and pose health risks even at levels so low they cannot currently be detected.

Currently, North Carolina's provisional drinking water health goal is 140 ppt for GenX. According to the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), PFBS has not been found in significant concentrations in sampling to date in North Carolina.

The EPA is also updating health advisories for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). Guidelines passed in 2016 allowed for 70 ppt. The new advisory level for PFOA is now 0.004 ppt and 0.02 ppt for PFOS.

"Data on the PFOA and PFOS levels in North Carolina’s private drinking water wells and public water systems are limited," said the DEQ in a news release. "However, available sampling indicates the presence of one or both compounds in multiple public water systems across the state. DEQ [is] evaluating the available data in light of these new health advisories to identify potentially affected communities and take action to address impacts to North Carolina residents."

Environmental advocacy groups in North Carolina responded positively to the news.

"EPA's stringent new health values for several toxic 'forever chemicals' will save lives and ensure a healthier environment for all of us," said Brian Buzby, executive director of the NC Conservation Network. "EPA's action on these four PFAS is also a reminder that this entire class of chemicals appears to be much more toxic than previously known - it's crucial that we keep them out of our water, air, clothing and food."

Geoff Gisler, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, pointed out that while the health advisories are not enforceable, they will help guide DEQ when making drinking water standards.

"These health advisories are EPA's best analysis of what it means to have a toxic chemical in a toxic amount," Gisler said. "The EPA has... determined that these chemicals are toxic at very, very low levels. The health advisories play an important role in the [state] permitting process."

Chemical company Chemours issued a statement Wednesday morning disputing the scientific data the EPA used as a basis for the health advisory issued for GenX, which the company uses in its products. The company is responsible for polluting the Cape Fear River with PFAS over several years.

Similarly, the American Chemistry Council, which represents major chemical companies, said the EPA's announcement “reflects a failure of the agency to follow its accepted practice for ensuring the scientific integrity of its process."

The EPA's announcement comes a week after DEQ announced its own plans for addressing PFAS. Those actions include minimizing future releases of PFAS and cleaning existing contamination.

The EPA is working to propose national drinking water regulations for PFAS by this fall.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.
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