EPA sets bold new limits on ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water

WASHINGTON – Today the Environmental Protection Agency finalized unprecedented new limits on the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS as a way to tackle drinking water contamination. The proposal targets six PFAS – PFOA, PFOS, GenX, PFBS, PFNA and PFHxS. These are among the most protective health limits on PFAS in drinking water in the world.

The limits, known as maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs, are the highest level of a contaminant allowed in drinking water. In addition to weighing health, these limits take into consideration water treatment costs and feasibility. The MCLs announced are: 4 parts per trillion, or ppt, for PFOA and PFOS and 10 parts per trillion for GenX, PFNA and PFHxS. The EPA also set a hazard index, a tool the agency uses to address cumulative risks from mixtures of chemicals, for GenX, PFBS, PFNA and PFHxS.

More than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their tap water and for decades Americans have been exposed to toxic ‘forever chemicals’ with no oversight from their government. That’s because for generations, PFAS chemicals slid off of every federal environmental law like a fried egg off a Teflon pan – until Joe Biden came along,” said Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook.  “Today’s announcement of robust, health protective legal limits on PFAS in tap water will finally give tens of millions of Americans the protection they should have had decades ago.

“It is the most consequential decision to regulate drinking water in 30 years. We commend EPA Administrator Michael Regan for his tireless leadership to make this decision a reality, and Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory for making sure PFAS is tackled with the ‘whole of government’ approach President Biden promised, said Cook.

“These new limits confirm that these chemicals are toxic at very low levels,” said Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., vice president of investigations at the EWG. “While these six PFAS are some of the most well-studied PFAS, nearly every week there are new scientific studies documenting an increasing number of ways that the whole class of PFAS could damage our bodies and threaten our health.” 

“Filtering out these six PFAS to meet the EPA’s new limits will require utilities to take steps that will ultimately reduce exposure to all PFAS, as well as other toxic chemicals in drinking water,” she added.

The EPA also set a maximum contaminant level goal, or MCLG, for PFOA and PFOS of zero, based on identified cancer risks. An MCLG is the maximum level of a contaminant in drinking water at which the EPA determines that no adverse health effects would occur. Whenever there is an identified cancer risk, the MCLG is set at zero. The EPA set MCLGs of 10 ppt for GenX, PFNA, and PFHxS.

“Today’s announcement by the EPA is historic,” said Melanie Benesh, vice president for government affairs at EWG. “These are the first new chemicals the EPA has regulated under the 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act and these new protections are critically important.

“Because PFAS are toxic in very low amounts, it’s hard to overstate the public health impact of these new rules. Getting these PFAS out of our drinking water will prevent thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of cases of serious health harms like cardiovascular disease, bladder cancer, strokes, heart attacks and reproductive harms like preeclampsia and low birth weights. These new limits will save lives,” said Benesh.

For decades, 3M and DuPont hid the health harms of PFAS from regulators, workers and neighboring communities. PFAS have been linked to cancer, reproductive harm, immune system damage and other serious health problems, even at low levels. The EPA estimates that these new limits will result in 1,232 fewer birth-weight-related infant deaths; 1,928 fewer kidney cancer deaths; 1,844 fewer bladder cancer deaths; and 3,584 fewer deaths from cardiovascular disease. 

“Today we celebrate a huge – and long overdue – victory for public health in this country. The EPA is finally moving forward to protect drinking water across the United States by adopting federally enforceable limits on some of the most toxic, persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals ever found in our nation's drinking water supply,” said Rob Bilott, the attorney who uncovered the widespread presence of PFAS chemicals and whose story is told in his book “Exposure” and portrayed in the movie “Dark Waters.”

“It has taken far too long to get to this point, but the scientific facts and truth about the health threat posed by these man-made poisons have finally prevailed over the decades of corporate cover-ups and misinformation campaigns designed to mislead the public and to delay action to protect public health,” Bilott added.

These new limits extend the EPA’s recent work to document PFAS health risks. In June 2022, the EPA proposed updated lifetime health advisories, or LHAs, for PFOA and PFOS and published new LHAs for PFBS and GenX. LHAs provide information on drinking water contaminants that can harm people exposed to them throughout their lives. 

The EPA health risk assessment for the LHAs for the first time included studies on people, including children, and showed that health harms can be caused by PFAS exposure at levels much lower than the EPA’s previous health guideline of 70 ppt for PFOA and PFOS in water. These risk assessments and the newer LHAs prompted the EPA to propose historic limits on these six PFAS in March 2023. 

After decades of delay, President Biden’s EPA has finally delivered a PFAS drinking water standard that will protect all of us,” said activist and actor Mark Ruffalo. “President Biden and his team pledged to make PFAS a priority and he has delivered. No administration has done more to address the urgent threat posed by these toxic forever chemicals.”

“My message to polluters is simple: After poisoning your workers and neighbors for decades, we are finally making our public health, not your profits, our top priority. My message to communities devastated by PFAS pollution is equally simple: Your voices have been heard,” added Ruffalo.

PFAS have been found in the drinking water and groundwater of more than 5,000 communities. But the true scale of contamination is likely much greater. 

EWG estimates there could be nearly 30,000 industrial polluters releasing PFAS into the environment, including into sources of drinking water. Restricting industrial discharges will reduce the amount of PFAS that drinking water utilities must treat. The EPA was supposed to issue a proposed rule limiting discharges of PFAS from certain industries last summer, but has not done so yet.

“Today’s announcement is an enormous public health victory and will lead to much safer drinking water coming out of your tap. But polluters must also do their part and clean up their own mess and stop PFAS contamination at the source,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president of government affairs. 

“Now that the EPA has finalized these limits, they should also move quickly to regulate industrial discharges of PFAS into the air and water. Utilities should also reject PFAS-laden wastewater from polluters and require them to treat it themselves. This will help ensure that polluters instead of ratepayers pay to keep our water safe,” Faber added.

Drinking water utilities will be required to test for three years and then have an additional two years to comply with the new limits on PFAS in drinking water. Congress provided funding in the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law to address PFAS in drinking water. PFAS manufacturers have also recently settled lawsuits with water utilities for billions of dollars.

“The nationwide standards to limit exposure to PFAS in drinking water are a welcome development to address the harms these toxic chemicals have already inflicted upon individuals and communities,” said David Andrews, Ph.D., deputy director of investigations and a senior scientist at EWG.

“Decades of unchecked use and releases of PFAS chemicals have devastated the planet by contaminating people, drinking water and food, including fish and wildlife, across the globe,” he added.

Because of current EPA rules, most water utilities will be required to test drinking water for 29 PFAS between 2023 and 2025. That effort will provide more insight into the extent of contamination from those chemicals, which may prompt regulation of other compounds. The EPA has already released some data from the monitoring, which is included in EWG’s PFAS contamination map

Although the new MCLs are limited to six notorious PFAS, treatment technologies installed to comply with the MCL mean other PFAS will effectively be treated too, which will reduce total PFAS levels in drinking water.

While these are the first federal drinking water limits for PFAS, 10 states already have final or interim enforceable drinking water limits for some kinds of PFAS. However, where the new federal limits are more stringent than the state rules, the states will have to update their standards to be at least as health protective as the new federal limits. 


The Environmental Working Group (EWG) 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. 

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