The EPA Just Passed the First-Ever Federal Regulations for ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Drinking Water. Here are the Top Five Things You Need to Know. - Modern Farmer

The EPA Just Passed the First-Ever Federal Regulations for ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Drinking Water. Here are the Top Five Things You Need to Know.

Of the thousands of "forever chemicals" out there, the Environmental Protection Agency just passed a drinking water standard for a small handful of them. Here’s what it means for you.

Glass of water.
The EPA set enforceable limits on a handful of PFAS.
Photography by Shutterstock

This story is part of our ongoing PFAS series, The PFAS Problem: Demystifying ‘Forever Chemicals’

Last month, the EPA passed its first-ever legally enforceable drinking water standards on a handful of PFAS—a group of chemicals used to make non-stick coatings and products that resist heat, oil, water and more. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are toxic chemicals and are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because of their tendency to not break down.

The regulations state that all public water systems have three years to complete testing for these chemicals and must implement solutions to reduce PFAS in five years. Under the new laws, the public must be informed of the level of PFAS measured in their drinking water.

In a lot of ways, the EPA decision is a ground-breaking move. PFAS have been used commercially since the 1940s, and it has long been known that these chemicals are toxic to people. Big chemical companies, such as  3M, have known about the harmful qualities of these toxic chemicals for decades but intentionally hid the evidence

LEARN MORE The United States Enviromental Protection Agency’s first-ever legally enforceable drinking water standard on a handful of PFAS

The scary thing about PFAS is they are simultaneously very close to home and unsafe. They’re used in everyday household products such as raingear, nonstick pans and mascara and the EPA admits that “exposure to PFAS has been linked to deadly cancers, impacts to the liver and heart, and immune and developmental damage to infants and children.”

Despite the known risks, there’s a reason it has taken so long to get even one rule passed at the federal level to regulate these chemicals in drinking water. Extensive lobbying efforts by chemical companies have helped keep restraints off these substances. You can read our coverage of this lobbying here.

So what does this mean for you? 

Here are five essential takeaways for you to know about the new drinking water regulations, along with expert insights from Kyla Bennett, science policy director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). 

These laws apply to only six PFAS

Of the at least 12,000 existing PFAS, the EPA issued regulations for only six of them. This new regulation dips a toe into the water of regulating them. It sets maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) in drinking water for two of the oldest and most pervasive PFAS, called PFOA and PFOS, of four parts per trillion. The EPA has said that there is no safe level of exposure for PFOA and PFOS. 

“It’s a good first step. I think it’s too little too late given that it’s only for six PFAS and there are 12,000 to 14,000 of them,” says Bennett.“It alleviates the stress a little bit, but not a whole lot…Nobody should relax.”

Food & Water Watch recently released a thorough buying guide to help you side-step PFAS in everything from paint to menstrual products to furniture.

People assume that is something's legal, it's safe. And that's simply not true. Modern Farmers PFAS reporting is strengthened by the expertize of organizations like PEER. To connect with PEER click here

This is only for public drinking water systems

Public water systems have to complete initial water monitoring within three years, and if the levels are too high, take steps to reduce them within five years. For example, this could mean shutting down a contaminated water source or installing a filtration system. Data about public drinking water systems is available online. Private wells, common in rural or farm areas, won’t automatically be tested for PFAS. 

“[This regulation] does not apply to private wells,” says Bennett. “And I know a lot of farmers do have private wells. However, there is money available for private well owners if they are contaminated, to get a filter put in or to get it fixed. So, that’s good news for private well owners.”

Installing a filter at your kitchen sink can help reduce your exposure if there is PFAS in your water. Bennett recommends looking on The National Sanitation Foundation website for filters that will reliably reduce total PFAS in your water.

A private well.

Private wells will not automatically be tested for PFAS. (Photo by Shutterstock)

The burden is on municipal drinking water systems, not directly on polluters

The drinking water regulation puts the burden of fixing high contaminant loads on public drinking water systems and municipalities, not the polluters themselves. This also means that, under this law, there is no direct lever for polluting companies to change their practices.

However, this regulation could start a domino effect—municipalities that don’t want to be on the hook for installing very costly filtration systems might begin putting more pressure on polluting companies in their jurisdictions.

“States are going to want to help the municipalities within their states, and they are going to then start putting in PFAS limits in the effluent, which will help reduce the amount of PFAS going into the public drinking water,” says Bennett.

Is there PFAS pollution in your area? Consult the Environmental Working Group’s interactive map.

A still image of the Environmental Working Group’s Interactive PFAS pollution map. The light blue dots show where drinking water PFAS levels are known to be above the new limits, and the dark blue dots show where it is known to be below the new limits. (Image courtesy of the Environmental Working Group)

The EPA should regulate PFAS as a class, not individually

There are at least 12,000 known PFAS, and we can only currently test for about 70 of them. Bennett says that the EPA should define PFAS broadly, and then regulate them as a class, instead of doing more of this “whack-a-mole regulation,” where they only deal with a handful at a time. And then, she says, we should ban all non-essential uses, such as cosmetics.

It’s important to regulate PFAS broadly, says Bennett, because addressing only a handful of PFAS does nothing to protect people from what are called “regrettable substitutions”—where companies using PFAS just swap restricted ones for other PFAS that remain unregulated (remember, there are hundreds of these chemicals out there). 

While the federal government moves slowly, individual states have made more moves restricting PFAS. You can use this bill tracker to find out what states have either introduced or enacted legislation to ban PFAS in different product categories.

You still need to protect yourself from PFAS

The EPA’s working assumption right now is that 20 percent of your PFOA and PFOS exposure comes from drinking water. Even if all “forever chemicals” were eliminated from your water, it’s still critical to eliminate other sources of exposure. While PFAS is a large, systemic problem, and solving it should not be on the individual’s shoulders, taking action now can help protect you while we wait for legislation to hopefully catch up. 

Read More: You’ve already been exposed to toxic PFAS. Read our guide on how to reduce your own personal exposure here.

“It shouldn’t be this way,” says Bennett. “But right now, because the states and the federal government are acting so slowly, we have to take it upon ourselves to reduce our risk as best we can. So, education can go a long way in getting people to realize what they should and should not be buying, what they should and should not be using, what they should and should not be eating…It sucks that the government isn’t taking care of us. But people assume that if something’s legal, it’s safe. And that’s simply not true.”

Kyla Bennett is the science policy director at PEER, and she wants to answer your questions about PFAS. Submit your question to

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments