The Water & Health Advisory Council recently submitted a public comment on the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed PFAS National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR). Read the full public comment below.
May 26, 2023
To the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):
Re: Water & Health Advisory Council Comment on EPA’s Proposed Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (Docket ID: EPA-HQ-OW-2022-0114)
Thank you for the opportunity to provide feedback on the proposed PFAS National Primary Drinking Water Regulation. Our council advocates for scientifically supported decisions based on the weight of evidence and a holistic approach to water policy and management that prioritizes providing reliable, and safe drinking water for the most people possible. With this in mind, we have concerns with the proposed PFAS MCL levels, and the rationales provided for them.
The Safe Drinking Water Act requires that proposed regulations for our drinking water systems demonstrate a “meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction,” which means evaluating risk to the public based upon clear exposure and health impact information. As of today, expert toxicologists’ opinions and advisory levels for PFAS vary by over 100,000 -fold, indicating that there is no consensus regarding the toxicity of these compounds at drinking water levels. Numerous toxicologists, epidemiologists, and risk assessors worldwide have disagreed with the U.S. EPA technical review of PFOA and PFOS toxicity data. For example, the U.S. EPA’s proposed strategy for regulating PFOA and PFOS as carcinogens with an MCL Goal of zero is in direct contrast with the United Kingdom’s independent science advisory committee conclusion that there is “no evidence for a link between exposure to PFASs and cancer risk.” (COT, 2022, p. 24). Additionally, all the noncancer health endpoints used by the U.S. EPA are based on “suggestive” evidence only; there is still no clear evidence that exposure to low levels of PFAS causes any human disease. We ask that the U.S. EPA take a more balanced approach to their interpretations of the potential human health risks associated with PFAS, consistent with international agencies that have developed more practical approaches that consider the significant uncertainties within the available toxicity data.
There are also inconsistencies and disagreements regarding the economic impact of these proposed regulations. The U.S. EPA estimated an expected total annual cost of between $755,000,000 and $1.2 billion annually in the Economic Analysis. However, the American Water Works Association previously estimated that the national cost to comply with these regulations will be at least $3.8 billion annually. As stated by the U.S. EPA, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will provide some of the necessary funding to municipalities (a total of $9 billion). However, these funds are meant to cover not only PFAS, but drinking water systems impacted by other emerging contaminants, regulated contaminants that are not being adequately addressed (e.g., lead or arsenic), and critical infrastructure and maintenance upgrades. Federal funds devoted to PFAS will crowd out support for needs that may be more pressing in many parts of the U.S. Moreover, these economic impact analyses do not take into account costs associated with other programs that will be impacted by the U.S. EPA’s stringent position on PFAS, such as environmental remediation programs, redevelopment, and wastewater treatment.
The U.S. EPA has not justified the need for such extremely costly drinking water regulations for PFAS. Current U.S. population PFAS exposure levels are 70 to 90% lower than they were 25 years ago (see Figure 1 below) (CDC, 2019). The U.S. EPA’s evaluations of risk include the assumption that drinking water is a minor contributor of exposures to PFAS relative to other pathways (default relative source contribution (RSC) of 20%), yet the agency is placing a great and costly burden on drinking water providers. In fact, the national drinking water occurrence database for PFOA and PFOS and other PFAS is very weak, and the data quality of the sources that have been assembled is not uniform. It does not provide a reliable basis for drinking water distributions and exposures, and economic impact analyses. The U.S. EPA should await the reports from the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule 5 (UCMR5) survey that is underway before making a regulatory decision. The first-round data will be available in less than a year. This occurrence data will likely show that communities nation-wide will have varying levels of PFAS in their drinking water; not all should be treated with the same level of urgency. The higher drinking water concentrations of PFOA and PFOS are mostly in groundwater supplies impacted by manufacturing and users’ sites. In communities where high levels of PFAS exist, water utilities have and should continue to address drinking water exposures with urgency. However, communities with extremely low detections of PFAS that may also be facing well- established public health risks from other sources such as elevated levels of other regulated chemicals, failing infrastructure, and reduced access to water supplies, should be able to utilize their resources to address those high priority concerns.
Geometric Mean PFOS and PFOA Serum Concentrations for the U.S. Population, CDC National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999 – 2018.
About 85 percent of Americans who receive water utility service are served by local governments that face continuous pressure to keep rates low. High PFAS testing, remediation, and/or removal costs are likely to crowd out water system investments that would yield greater public health benefits, such as investment in infrastructure necessary to improve reliability or address contaminants such as arsenic or lead in drinking water. Small water systems and water systems in disadvantaged communities who already struggle with underfunding and understaffing lack the necessary resources to address these proposed regulations. While the EPA has designated PFAS-specific funds for these communities, the cost of implementation far exceeds the available funding. We must invest in small water systems and disadvantaged communities and not force them to address contaminants at such low levels and uncertain science, when this may not be the highest concern for their communities. The media creates intense concern regarding PFAS, but when it comes to public health, it is important to focus on addressing issues that most improve the safety of our nation’s drinking water for the greatest number of people.
Overall, the U.S. EPA has not demonstrated that the financial burden that will be placed on municipalities and their community members associated with the proposed PFAS drinking water regulations is justified by a meaningful protection of public health. Science is still evolving, with critical research ongoing. An overly conservative and not scientifically supported interpretation of the science can have negative public health consequences by not only diverting resources away from known public health drinking water issues (e.g., arsenic, lead or microbial contaminants in water, failing infrastructure, raised water utility costs), but also by the unnecessary stigma and stress that is put on a community identified as living with contaminated drinking water. We urge the U.S. EPA to consider the unintended public health consequences associated with diverting water utility resources towards these low-level contaminants and away from known risks impacting drinking water. Municipal utilities may be forced to fund the compliance costs associated with the PFAS MCLs by cutting back on infrastructure replacement and maintenance, operational resiliency, and reducing other expenditures that would have more benefit to public health and provide better access to clean and safe water.
The Safe Drinking Water Act calls on our nation’s leaders to take effective steps towards ensuring a safe, affordable, and reliable drinking water supply for everyone. We ask that you continue to apply a science- based, risk- and cost-benefit analysis when approaching regulating PFAS. Our Council stands ready to provide additional comment, testimony, or other ways that our expertise can be of value to this process. Thank you.
Water & Health Advisory Council
Rob Renner, Council Chair, Former Chief Executive Officer at Water Research Foundation
Chad Seidel, Ph.D., President, Corona Environmental Consulting
Joseph Cotruvo, Ph.D., BCES President, Joseph Cotruvo & Associates
Joyce Dinglasan-Panlilio, Ph.D., Division Chair/Associate Professor in Environmental Chemistry at University of Washington-Tacoma
Kathryn Sorensen, Director of Research at the Kyl Center for Water Policy, Arizona State University Manuel Teodoro, Robert F. and Sylvia T. Wagner Distinguished Professor of Public Affairs at University of Wisconsin-Madison
Janet Anderson, Principal Toxicologist, GSI Environmental Inc.