Science Guides Public Health Protection for Drinking Water

Joel Beauvais Joel Beauvais

By Joel Beauvais

As a country, we’ve come a long way toward providing clean air, water, and land – essential resources that support healthy, productive lives. But we have more work to do to make sure that every American has access to safe drinking water.

That’s why EPA launched a concerted engagement effort with key partners and stakeholders – including state, tribal and local governments, drinking water utilities, and public health, environmental and community stakeholders – to develop and implement a national action plan to address critical drinking water challenges and opportunities.

As always, our work to protect public health and the environment must consistently be built on a foundation of sound science and data. When it comes to drinking water, scientific information helps us identify pollutants of concern – including new or emerging contaminants – assess potential health impacts, and understand the steps needed to address them.

Today, based on the latest science on two chemical contaminants called PFOA and PFOS, EPA released drinking water health advisories to provide the most up-to-date information on the health risks of these chemicals. These advisories will help local water systems and state, tribal and local officials take the appropriate steps to address PFOA and PFOS if needed.

For many years, PFOA and PFOS were widely used in carpets, clothing, furniture fabrics, food packaging, and other materials to make them more resistant to water, grease, and stains. PFOA and PFOS were also used for firefighting at airfields and in a number of industrial processes.  Between 2000 and 2002, PFOS was voluntarily phased out of production in the U.S. by its primary manufacturer. And EPA asked eight major companies to commit to eliminate their production and use of PFOA by the end of 2015 and they have indicated that they have met their commitments. While there are some limited ongoing uses of these chemicals, in recent years, blood testing data has shown that exposures are declining across the country.

For most people, their source of exposure to PFOA and PFOS has come through food and consumer products. But drinking water can be an additional source of exposure in the small percentage of communities where these chemicals have contaminated water supplies.  This is typically a localized issue associated with a specific facility – for example, in communities where a manufacturing plant or airfield made or used these chemicals.

EPA’s assessment indicates that drinking water with individual or combined concentrations of PFOA and PFOS below 70 parts per trillion is not expected to result in adverse health effects over a lifetime of exposure.  These levels reflect a margin of protection, including for the most sensitive populations.

If these chemicals are found in drinking water systems above these levels, system operators should quickly conduct additional sampling to assess the level, scope, and source of contamination.  They should also promptly notify consumers and consult with their state drinking water agency to discuss appropriate next steps. Public notification is especially important for pregnant or nursing women because of the impact these chemicals can have on the development of fetuses and breastfed or formula-fed infants. There are a number of options available to water systems to lower concentrations of these chemicals in the drinking water supply.

EPA will continue sharing the latest science and information so that state and local officials can make informed decisions and take actions to protect public health.  This is an important part of our broader effort to support states and public water systems as we work together to strengthen the safety of America’s drinking water.

For more information on the health advisories for PFOA and PFOS, visit the webpage.

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