KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed this week the first-ever national drinking water standard for two toxic chemicals found in drinking water.
The toxic human-made chemicals are part of a group of substances dubbed "forever chemicals" because of their inability to break down.
The proposal would establish nationwide protection for six per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the "forever chemicals," which are found in water, food, personal or cleaning products, are in the bloodstreams of 97 percent of Americans.
Exposure to PFAS over a long period of time can cause serious health issues, including cancer, reproductive problems, developmental delays or effects in children and a weakened immune system, according to the EPA.
There has not been widespread PFAS contamination in testing samples in Missouri since 2013, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
WaterOne, the public water system for Johnson County, Kansas, and the largest in Kansas, says it has not detected any PFAS in its water system, even at nanoscopic levels.
Only isolated incidents of PFAS contamination have been detected in Kansas, and has had no impact on Johnson County’s water, according to WaterOne.
On the Missouri side, a spokesperson for KC Water, which serves residents in Kansas City, Missouri, says the utility "tests regularly for PFAS/PFOS per Safe Drinking Water Act requirements."
“KC Water continues to test for 'forever chemicals' in our water system and currently meets all federal and state requirements for safe quality drinking water and wastewater treatment,” the spokesperson said.
Back on the Kansas side, the Board of Public Utilities, the public water system for Wyandotte County, did not detect PFAS in its most recent testing samples in 2019-2020. If the regulations are finalized, BPU is scheduled to conduct PFAS testing in 2024, according to BPU chief communications officer David Mehlhaff.
The EPA proposal would require public water systems to monitor PFAS levels, notify the public if PFAS levels are above regulation standards and reduce contamination levels if necessary.
These regulations – if passed – will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-related illnesses, the EPA predicts.
These toxic chemicals are found in everyday items, such as, food, food packaging, household cleaning products, hygienic products, fire extinguishing foam and more. PFAS are also present in soil and water at or near waste sites, according to the EPA. They are found in humans, the environment and in wildlife around the world.
The proposal, if finalized, would establish legally enforceable levels for six PFAS found in drinking water.
Last year the EPA discovered PFAS concentration levels near zero or too low for the EPA to detect in water can cause negative health effects, which contrasts with previous regulations put in place by the EPA.
In 2016, the EPA issued a health advisory that said drinking water should not contain more than 70 parts per trillion of the chemicals.
The EPA’s current recommendation, which was updated in 2022, is far below previous advisories.
Now, the EPA proposes the maximum amount of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), which are both members of PFAS chemicals, in drinking water should not exceed 4 parts per trillion, which is the lowest level that can be accurately tested with current testing equipment. The pair are part of six per/polyfluoroalkyl substances that make up the list of "forever chemicals."
The EPA’s non-enforceable health advisory levels recommend water should not contain more than 0.004 parts per trillion of perfluorooctanoic acid and 0.02 parts per trillion of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid.
According to the Missouri DNR’s PFAS interactive map, the only recent PFAS contamination to exceed EPA non-enforceable health advisory levels on the Missouri side of the Kansas City region was at the Unity Village treatment plant, which serves 1,000 customers in Jackson County, in November 2022.
The Unity Village testing found 2.3 ppt of PFOA in its sample, which does not exceed the EPA's proposed maximum levels, but does exceed its health advisory levels.
"A good analogy is one per part trillion is approximately one drop of food coloring in 20 Olympic sized swimming pools – and there’s 660,000 gallons of water in a single Olympic sized swimming pool," said Guy Swanson, chief operating officer of Unity World Headquarters. "So, our PFOA of 2.3 ppt, is miniscule."
Unity Village said it will continue to work with Missouri DNR to monitor its levels and evaluate potential future treatment and investment options.
The EPA’s proposed regulation has been posted for 60 days for public comment, after which the EPA will review suggestions and possibly make changes.
The EPA expects to finalize the proposal by the end of the year.