New PFAS Drinking Water Rule Promises Local Stories

May 29, 2024
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PFAS warning signs along the Rogue River near Rockford, Michigan. The U.S. government has issued a long-awaited rule limiting certain “forever chemicals” in drinking water. Photo: G Witteveen, via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED).

TipSheet: New PFAS Drinking Water Rule Promises Local Stories

By Joseph A. Davis

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recently finalized rule limiting certain “forever chemicals” in drinking water culminates a nearly decade-long effort to grapple with the thorny problem.

It also marks the beginning of what will likely be a decade-long process of fixing it.

The new PFAS drinking water rule is a big deal — and also a great local story for environmental journalists. TipSheet has some hints about how to find the angles near you.


Why it matters

PFAS — the abbreviation stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, with molecules including fluorine and carbon in various combinations — are a family of about 15,000 chemicals manufactured for use in firefighting foam, spillproofing upholstery, grease-proofing food wrappers and many other products.

Most of these chemicals are hard to destroy and extremely persistent in the environment. They bioaccumulate, meaning they build up in the environment. No wonder headline writers call them “forever chemicals.”


The problem is that PFAS

can cause significant

human health problems.


The problem is that PFAS can cause significant human health problems. The problems are different for different compounds. But generally, PFAS may cause reproductive and developmental effects, increased risk of some cancers, immune suppression, hormone disruption and increases in blood cholesterol and obesity.

Research into potential health effects is still ongoing and much is not known. What does matter is that PFAS sometimes seems to be everywhere and that most people are exposed in some way. 

There are many routes of human exposure — from french fry wrappers to high-end rain jackets. Even playing with the baby on the carpet. What matters is human exposure: how much over what length of time.


The backstory

People started getting worried about PFAS back in 2016, when PFAS chemicals were found in private wells around Bennington, Vermont, caused by waste from a nearby plant. The concern spread. Other communities across the country found PFAS in their water, too.

It was a major political problem. Under President Trump, the EPA failed to unravel it. Then-Administrator Scott Pruitt held a summit in May 2018, which didn’t lessen the controversy. Chemical industry representatives were invited to the meeting, but many mainstream reporters who showed up to cover it were ushered out (more on this from WatchDog).

Some states, like Vermont, went on to set their own limits on PFAS in drinking water, but the EPA took much longer. A legally binding drinking water limit for some major PFAS finally came out under President Biden in April 2024.


Setting meaningful and enforceable

limits for a class of 15,000 chemicals

is a serious technical challenge.


We could cut the EPA some slack. Setting a “maximum contaminant level” under the Safe Drinking Water Act is a long and daunting process. Setting meaningful and enforceable limits for a class of 15,000 chemicals is a serious technical challenge.

Worse yet, removing PFAS from raw water requires expensive advanced treatment technologies. Utilities do not want to pay for them, and neither do ratepayers.

You can get a whole lot more info on the problem and the new regulation from the EPA page on the PFAS rule.


Story ideas

  • After finding the utility that provides your area’s drinking water, get its latest “consumer confidence report.” If PFAS have been tested for or detected in your water, it will tell you. Look under “detected unregulated contaminants.”
  • Find out if any private well owners (or users) in your area have detected PFAS in their water. Check local media, testing services and state/county health departments.
  • Are there known sources of PFAS pollution in your area? Check manufacturing plants.
  • Are there any airports or aircraft firefighting operations in your area that may have used PFAS-containing foam? What happens to their runoff? Check with well owners in the vicinity about any pollution.
  • Where does the source water for your local drinking water system come from? Ask your utility for a source water assessment and a source water protection plan, if it has them. Try exploring the interactive online tool, the Drinking Water Mapping Application to Protect Source Waters (DWMAPS).
  • What kinds of treatment does your utility give to drinking water? Does it use granular activated carbon, ion exchange resins and high-pressure membrane systems (these are for PFAS and other contaminants)?
  • If your utility has PFAS in its water, ask it what it will do to correct the problem. Ask what it would cost to remove PFAS and whether it would have to raise water rates. Sometimes changing water sources is a cheaper solution.


Reporting resources

[Editor’s Note: For more on PFAS, get started with a comprehensive primer and a recent Backgrounder on PFAS regulation, then check out Toolboxes on tracking PFAS in the Toxics Release Inventory and another database, as well as on how an obscure toxic substance database was used to ID a loophole on PFAS. We’ve also got TipSheets on PFAS near military sites and in local drinking water. See Features on the problem of PFAS disposal for the waste industry and a call for coverage in small communities, plus Inside Story Q&As on small-market beat PFAS coverage and on PFAS contamination in Europe. For more on the history of the PFAS problem, check out our earlier reports from 2022, 2021 and 2019. And for the latest headlines on PFAS, be sure to regularly visit our EJToday headlines on the topic.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 22. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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