The state’s Public Health Goals, or PHGs, submitted for public review would limit the amounts in drinking water for the two most notorious PFAS compounds: PFOA, formerly used to make DuPont’s Teflon, and PFOS, formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard. State environmental health officials recommend a health protective limit of 7 parts per quadrillion for PFOA, and 1 part per trillion, or ppt, for PFOS.
A PHG is the amount of a chemical in drinking water at which adverse health effects are not expected to occur from a lifetime of exposure. In 2019, to better protect children’s health, the Environmental Working Group proposed a drinking water and cleanup standard of 1 ppt for all PFAS.
California’s limit would go even further to protect public health, and both EWG’s and the state’s approaches are significantly stricter than federal PFAS drinking water guidelines.
PFAS are synthetic chemicals that have so far been found in the drinking water of almost 2,800 communities. They are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic. PFAS are a large family of fluorinated chemicals, some of which have been linked to cancer, reproductive harm, immune system damage and other serious health problems.
In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency pressured eight companies to voluntarily phase out production of PFOA and PFOS by 2015. Despite the phaseout, these chemicals and their replacements remain ubiquitous in the environment.
“California’s proposed public health goals confirm that the EPA’s guidelines for PFAS levels in drinking water woefully underestimate the risks to human health,” said Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., vice president for science investigations at EWG. “We urge the EPA to collect and publish all water results showing PFAS contamination at any level, so Americans across the country can take immediate steps to protect themselves and their families.”
In the absence of an enforceable federal standard, states like California have started to set their own legal limits for PFAS in water. New Jersey was the first to set a maximum contaminant limit for the compound PFNA, at 13 ppt, and has proposed standards of 13 ppt for PFOS and 14 ppt for PFOA. Some other states have issued limits for multiple PFAS compounds in drinking water, including Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont.
A peer-reviewed study by EWG scientists estimated that more than 200 million Americans could have toxic PFAS in their drinking water at a concentration of 1 ppt or higher.
“The new analysis from California provides additional confirmation that PFAS compounds such as PFOA and PFOS are a health concern at incredibly low concentrations,” said David Andrews, Ph.D., a senior EWG scientist. “National and international regulators have focused on PFAS limits in water in parts per trillion. PFAS contamination is widespread, including in rainwater, and California’s proposed Public Health Goal for PFOA is so low, with a value in the parts per quadrillion, there is likely no river or stream on earth that has escaped contamination and would be considered safe.”
California lawmakers also are advancing two bills that would ban PFAS from kids’ products and in food packaging. AB 652 and AB 1200 both passed the state Assembly with wide margins and then won approval by Senate policy committees. The bills await a full Senate floor vote. Then, if approved, they will head to Gov. Gavin Newsom. The bills must be signed into law by October 10, the last day for Newsom to sign or veto legislation.
Today’s announcement by OEHHA sets in motion a multiyear process to develop enforceable state standards for PFOA and PFOS. State officials are now seeking public comments and outside scientific review of the proposed public health goals before they are finalized. This could take at least one year. Then the California Water Resources Control Board will develop the enforceable standards, which could take several years.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.