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New EPA regulations target PFAs in drinking water

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For the first time in more than a decade, the Environmental Protection Agency is looking to create a new regulation for toxins in drinking water. They're planning to target so-called forever chemicals, which are also known as PFAS. Well, Gabrielle Emanuel of member station WBUR is here to fill us in. And I want you to start, Gabriela, by just explaining what exactly these are and why we should be concerned about them.

GABRIELLA EMANUEL, BYLINE: Sure. So PFAS chemicals were invented in the 1930s, and they're really good at repelling water, oil, grease. And so they're used in tons of different consumer products. So think about your raincoat or a stain-resistant spray on a couch or your rug. They're used in dental floss, certain types of lotion. The problem is that the PFAS chemicals that have been studied are linked to a bunch of health concerns. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they may cause kidney cancer, increased cholesterol, decreased response to childhood vaccinations, among many other things. I spoke with Linda Birnbaum, who is the former head of the government's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

LINDA BIRNBAUM: I'm not sure I know a tissue or an organ system where effects haven't been reported. So these chemicals are in all of us, everyone. And they're everywhere.

EMANUEL: Now, she did say people shouldn't freak out. Most of us won't have these health consequences, but we should look for ways to limit our exposure.

KELLY: Which is where the EPA's proposed regulations come in, I guess. Tell me more about them.

EMANUEL: Yeah. So there are thousands of types of PFAS chemicals. The proposed regulations focus on just six in drinking water. Two are PFOA and PFOS, which are two of the most prevalent and well-studied. These used to be used in Teflon and Scotchgard. They've now been phased out, but PFAS chemicals don't really break down naturally, so they're still around us. Here is Michael Regan, head of the EPA, speaking earlier today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL REGAN: What began as a so-called miracle, groundbreaking technology meant for practicality and convenience quickly devolved into one of the most pressing environmental and public health concerns in the modern world.

EMANUEL: Regan says he hopes to finalize the rule by the end of the year, but some expect legal challenges ahead.

KELLY: OK, so bring us back around to drinking water and what this could mean for water systems, I guess, nationwide.

BIRNBAUM: Yes. So they will all be required to do testing and mitigation as well as public information about what their results are. And the reality is this is going to be expensive. Both academic and industry estimates say it will likely cost many billions of dollars. Now, the federal government has some funds for this, but experts say it's likely more is needed. And many would like to see the polluters, the industries that use these chemicals, to pay for some of it. It is also worth noting that the proposed regulations do not cover the 1 in 8 Americans who get their water from private wells. So for them, they are generally responsible for their own testing and any needed filtration.

KELLY: OK, so what has the reaction been to this so far?

EMANUEL: It has been mixed. The group that represents chemical manufacturers expressed, quote, "serious concerns" with the underlying science and called the EPA's approach overly conservative. The group points out that these chemicals are critical to things like renewable energy and medical devices. But on the flipside, activists and many scientists say more needs to be done. They'd like to see regulations that cover all types of PFAS and limit them at the source.

KELLY: Right. Because it sounds like if they're everywhere and they last forever or something close to it, cleaning up our drinking water is a start, but it's not going to fix the problem.

EMANUEL: That's exactly right. For some, drinking water is their primary exposure, but for others, it's their diet. And for other people, it's in the air and the dust in their home. One expert that I spoke to called the proposed drinking water regulations a really good start but said it's just the tip of the iceberg.

KELLY: That's Gabriela Emanuel of WBUR. Thank you.

EMANUEL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIL WAYNE SONG, "SHOOTER FT. ROBIN THICKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gabrielle Emanuel