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EPA Readies Drinking Water Health Advisory

May 13, 2016
Agency’s focus on perfluorinated chemical water contamination raises new issues.

Chemical manufacturers, processors, and end-product manufacturers with interests in perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and other perfluorinated chemicals (PFC) should prepare now for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) upcoming issuance of new guidance on safe drinking water levels for these chemicals. The EPA’s focus on PFC water contamination raises a new constellation of issues with which federal and state regulators must grapple. EPA Administrator McCarthy has made clear in various meetings in recent months that PFCs are among the agency’s top drinking water priorities and that action can be expected shortly.


PFCs are a group of manufactured compounds widely used in consumer products to make such products more resistant to stains, grease and water. These chemicals also find industrial application in sectors like electronics and aerospace. PFCs break down slowly in the environment and are often characterized as persistent. PFOS is no longer manufactured in the United States, and PFOA production has been reduced and will soon end. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), some PFCs are believed, based on animal studies, to disrupt endocrine activity, reduce immune function, and cause adverse effects on multiple organs. Data from some human studies suggest PFCs also may have effects on human health, while other studies have failed to demonstrate a relationship.

The EPA issued a document in January 2009 setting forth provisional health advisories for PFOA and PFOS. Based on data and analysis conducted at that time, the EPA determined the health guideline levels for PFOA and PFOS are 0.4 µg/L (400 parts per trillion (ppt)) and 0.2 µg/L (200 ppt), respectively. Elevated levels of PFCs have been identified in New York, New Hampshire and Vermont. Earlier this year, the EPA set an action level for PFOA of 100 ppt for drinking water in the Town of Hoosick and the Village of Hoosick Falls, New York. The State of Maine set an action level of 100 ppt for PFOA, and the State of Vermont went further, setting a health advisory level for PFOA at 20 ppt for drinking water. The variation among the health advisory and action levels is the source of considerable confusion, a point that undoubtedly is pressuring the EPA to revisit the 2009 provisional health advisory levels.

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The Vermont Congressional delegation (Senators Patrick Leahy (D) and Bernard Sanders (D) and Representative Peter Welch (D)) sent a letter dated April 19, 2016, to Senators James Inhofe (R-OK) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Representatives Fred Upton (R-MI) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ) urging quick Congressional action on reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Interestingly, the Vermont delegation cited PFOA’s presence in drinking and surface water in the Vermont communities of North Bennington, Bennington, and Pownal as evidence of TSCA’s failure to regulate effectively existing chemicals as PFOA is among the tens of thousands of chemicals grandfathered under TSCA when it was enacted in 1976. The letter made a strong pitch for minimal or no preemption of state action, and specifically urged reliance upon the principles outlined in a letter sent in January from twelve state Attorneys General.


Stakeholders with interests, however attenuated, in PFOA, PFOS and other PFCs should be prepared to address consequences that will arise once the EPA issues updated health advisories for PFCs. Given the downward trend in more recent guidelines, including the EPA’s 100 ppt action level for the Town of Hoosick and Village of Hoosick Falls, New York, it is virtually certain the new health advisory values will be more stringent and thus likely involve a great number of drinking water sources and the communities they serve. The implications of these new values are extensive; one need only review the Vermont Department of Health website to get a sense of the enormity of the implications for consumers regarding drinking water, showering, washing dishes, doing the laundry and related domestic activities. Stakeholders will need to develop comprehensive communication strategies to ensure new testing information and any new health advisory values are developed, explained, and managed responsibly and accurately without causing undo alarm.

LYNN BERGESON is Chemical Processing's Regulatory Editor. You can e-mail her at [email protected]Lynn is managing director of Bergeson & Campbell, P.C., a Washington, D.C.-based law firm that concentrates on conventional, biobased, and nanoscale chemical industry issues. She served as chair of the American Bar Association Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources (2005-2006).

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