WASHINGTON — For the first time, the federal government will require utilities to remove from drinking water two toxic chemicals found in everything from waterproof clothing to dental floss and even toilet paper, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday.
Michael S. Regan, the administrator of the EPA, said the government intends to require near-zero levels of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, part of a class of chemicals known as PFAS. Exposure to the chemicals has been linked to cancer, liver damage, fertility and thyroid problems, asthma, and other health effects.
“This is very significant,’’ Regan said. “This is the first time in US history that we’ve set enforceable limits for PFAS pollution.’’
The synthetic chemicals are so ubiquitous in modern life that nearly all Americans, including newborn babies, carry PFAS in their bloodstream. Dubbed “forever chemicals’’ because they do not break down and persist in the environment, the chemicals seep into soil and water. As many as 200 million Americans are exposed to PFAS in their tap water, according to a peer reviewed 2020 study.
Last year the EPA found the chemicals could cause harm at levels “much lower than previously understood’’ and that almost no level of exposure was safe. It advised that drinking water contain no more than 0.004 parts per trillion of perfluorooctanoic acid and 0.02 parts per trillion of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. Previously, the agency had advised that drinking water contain no more than 70 parts per trillion of the chemicals.
The EPA will accept public comments on the proposed regulation for 60 days before it will take effect and become the legal limit.
Public health groups and environmental advocates said the crackdown is long overdue.
“Regulating these six highly toxic PFAS chemicals in drinking water is a historic start to protecting our families and communities,’’ said Anna Reade, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. “We cannot safeguard public health until we get off this toxic treadmill of regulating one PFAS at a time when thousands of other PFAS remain unregulated.’’
In Massachusetts, which already has some of the country’s strictest PFAS standards for drinking water, environmental regulators praised the EPA’s proposed new rules and said they would begin assessing what it may mean for water systems in the state even before the federal rules are finalized.
Massachusetts is “committed to continuing our nation-leading efforts to combat PFAS contamination in public drinking water, private wells, and other sources of contamination,’’ said Ed Coletta, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Coletta said that once the EPA releases final drinking water standards, the DEP will adopt regulations that are at least as stringent.
A 2021 Sierra Club analysis of public water systems across Massachusetts estimated that 70 percent of communities have detectable levels of the contaminants.
When the new standards are finalized, states will be required to reshape and strengthen their standards to align with the new federal regulations. A potential complication in Massachusetts: The six PFAS chemicals listed in the EPA’s regulation are not the same ones the state currently regulates.
Deb Pasternak, director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club Chapter, said the new regulations will expand the state’s “already strong’’ standards. But she noted that thousands of kinds of PFAS have been identified, and said the EPA should go even further and phase them out of use.
“Unfortunately, that process will take years, so we call on states like ours to take the lead on restricting PFAS in the marketplace as soon as possible to keep these ‘forever chemicals’ out of drinking water in the first place,’’ she said in a statement.
Mark Ruffalo, an actor who has used his celebrity status to lobby for stronger drinking water standards, said the government’s decision was a long time in the making.
“And I know it took a lot of political guts,’’ he said.
Ruffalo said he was inspired to take action after reading a New York Times profile of Rob Bilott, a corporate attorney who took on Dupont. Ruffalo said he was frustrated to find that industrial chemicals known both by manufacturers and regulators to be dangerous to humans were being discharged daily into the air and water. (Ruffalo later portrayed Bilott in the 2019 film “Dark Waters.’’)
“Over and over I see the same model play out,’’ Ruffalo said. “It’s a coziness that the industry has to power. They all game the system in order to make money over people’s health.’’
Some Republicans and industry groups criticized the proposed regulation and said the Biden administration has created an impossible standard that will cost manufacturers and municipal water agencies billions of dollars. Industries would have to stop discharging the chemicals into waterways, and water utilities would have to test for the PFAS chemicals and remove them. Communities with limited resources will be hardest hit by the new rule, they warned.
The EPA estimated that it will cost water utilities about $772 million to comply with the rule. But Tom Dobbins, CEO of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, which represents some of the largest public water utilities in the country, said the estimated cost for a single entity to filter out PFAS, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority in North Carolina, was $43 million.
The organization “is concerned about the overall cost drinking water utilities will incur to comply with this proposed rulemaking,’’ Dobbins said in a statement. He added that the group plans to issue formal comments “to help strengthen the rule and ensure decisions are made with the best available science while taking costs into account.’’
The American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, noted that the two chemicals being regulated were phased out of production by its members eight years ago.
The group said it supports drinking water standards for the chemicals based on “the best available science’’ but questioned the EPA’s rationale and said it was an “overly conservative approach’’ that was misguided.
But some past critics of environmental regulation praised the plan.
Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, said in a statement that she is “pleased a safe drinking water standard has finally been issued’’ for the chemicals. “No one should have to wonder if their water is safe to drink, and it’s critical that we get this important regulation right,’’ she said.
Regan made the announcement in North Carolina, where he previously served as the state’s top environmental regulator. After startlingly high concentrations of the chemicals were found in several sources of public drinking water, he helped broker an agreement that required the Chemours Co. to pay a $13 million fine.
“As a former state regulator, I was really looking for the kind of leadership from the federal government that EPA is now demonstrating,’’ he said, adding that the plan will protect communities from exposure to chemicals that are known to be dangerous and hold polluters accountable.
He also said money from a $9 billion package that Congress gave the EPA last year as part of an infrastructure bill to invest in water programs will go toward helping states with costs.
In addition to endangering human health, PFAS chemicals also pose a problem for wildlife. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization, has created a map based on hundreds of studies showing where the pollutants have been detected in animals, fish, and birds, threatening species like dolphins and endangered sea turtles.
Water utilities said they have been preparing for tough standards. Across the country, cities and states have already been cracking down on PFAS in drinking water. Besides Massachuseetts, states that have proposed or adopted limits include Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.