PFAS: Time Waits for No Man...or Agency

March 1, 2019
Given the demonstrated health effects of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, public demand, and uncoordinated and varying regulations across the nation, perhaps EPA should accelerate its efforts to set drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS.

By Vanessa Leiby and Tina Wojnar

Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying: “You may delay, but time will not.” Could it be that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is ignoring such sage advice when it comes to the outright regulation of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)? PFAS substances are a group of manmade chemicals used in a wide variety of industries since the 1940s. Certain PFAS substances, most especially perfluorooctanoate (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS), are persistent, bioaccumulative, and will not naturally degrade in the environment.

In 2016, EPA established Lifetime Health Advisories (LHA) for PFOA and PFOS, which were among the first PFAS contaminants manufactured. LHAs are a non-regulatory option EPA uses to provide the public information on contaminants that can cause human health effects and are known to occur in drinking water.

The LHA levels for these contaminants are set at 70 parts per trillion (ppt) individually or combined. To put that number into perspective, it’s equivalent to 70 grains of sand in an Olympic-­sized swimming pool. With that reference, it’s easy to begin to appreciate their toxicity. Occurrence data for PFAS substances is generally well documented and not surprising given their widespread use in a variety of household and industry applications ranging from food packaging and water and stain repellents on furniture and carpets to coating applications in varied industries and fire-fighting foam used at airports and military bases. Risks arise from the legacy of long-term use and disposal with without regulation.

On February 14, 2019, EPA released a detailed and multifaceted plan for managing PFAS. The PFAS Action Plan contains both short-term and long-term actions, such as establishing a clearinghouse for PFAS information and developing more drinking water occurrence data for a broad group of PFAS contaminants. The agency considers short-term to be an approximate two-year time frame. Long-term goals are much more ambitious and have no specified timeline, raising questions about whether and when the agency will ultimately act to reduce risk. Will maximum contaminant limits (MCLs) ultimately be set for PFOS and PFOA? Will certain PFAS substance eventually be officially designated as hazardous and subject to environmental cleanup regulations? Only time will tell.

In response to citizen concerns, many states have stepped ahead of EPA in the regulation of PFAS; others are somewhere in the process or are urging federal action. Currently, states such as Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan, Texas, and Washington have all taken action on water testing or cleanup regulations and approximately a dozen more are considering action. The states’ responses range from guidance to required water monitoring or treatment, and public notification. Even when setting standards, many diverge significantly from EPA’s LHA levels; New Jersey has adopted a drinking water level of 14 ppt for PFOA, 13 ppt for perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), and is still evaluating PFOS.

In February of this year, a group of 20 U.S. senators sent EPA a letter urging PFOS and PFOA drinking water standards in response to media reports speculating EPA might not regulate these contaminants. The letter emphasized LHAs are non-­enforceable and, in the absence of federal guidance, states have responded with an uncoordinated “patch work” of varied regulations, which muddies the water for the treatment technology market, adds to water treatment and compliance costs, and results in uneven health protection across the nation.

Given the demonstrated health effects of PFAS substances, which EPA itself has recognized, public demand, and uncoordinated and varying regulations across the nation, does the public really have time to wait? Time is often measured in grains of sand slipping through an hour glass; perhaps we’ve lost 70 grains already! WW

About the Authors: Vanessa M. Leiby is the executive director of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA) and Tina M. Wojnar manages the association’s policy and member services program. More information about WWEMA can be found at and on LinkedIn at, where you can keep informed about key issues affecting the wastewater and drinking water industries.

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