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The EPA’s latest regulation on “forever chemicals” sheds light on the dangers of historically overlooked synthetic pollutants
EPA announces restrictions on chemicals in drinking water, giving water companies 5 years to test and treat their drinking water. Credit:

In a decisive step to address the health risks posed by synthetic chemicals, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently implemented new regulations targeting the reduction of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in tap water. The groundbreaking legislation, passed on April 19, 2024, asserts that the federal government will hold manufacturers and other industrial parties accountable for the environmental damage caused by their chemical products. 

In a press release, members of the Biden administration announced that “this action builds on the recently finalized standards to protect people and communities from PFAS contamination in drinking water.” Though experts acknowledge that these bills mark a significant step in the right direction, many have still found issues with the EPA’s roadmap to eliminate synthetic chemical threats and have thus questioned the agency’s delayed actions. In order to understand the implications of these regulations, it is important to understand the properties of PFAS, the risks they pose to public health, and the processes through which they infiltrate communal water sources.

“PFAS are synthetic molecules, meaning they’re not naturally found,” said AP chemistry teacher Tina Davis. “Their backbone is an alkyl chain [carbon chain with all carbon-carbon single bonds] with fluorine atoms covalently bonded to those carbons.”

Davis also noted the “broad range of physical and chemical properties” that PFAS possess: different molecules in this category can be anionic, cationic, or neutral. Moreover, depending on the length of the carbon-fluorine chain and the organic functional groups present, intermolecular forces of varying strength allow for PFAS to be in the solid, liquid, or gaseous state. 

These versatile characteristics, while useful in many industrial and consumer products such as non-stick cookware, waterproof clothing, and fire-fighting foams, make PFAS extremely resistant to natural degradation processes, leading to rapid bioaccumulation of these harmful chemicals. In recent years, this property has given PFAS the colloquial nickname “forever chemicals.”

Davis expanded upon this list of adverse effects, mentioning that “some of the peer-reviewed literature indicates PFAS can damage the liver, immune system, reproductive system, endocrine system and more. They’re a cause for concern.”

There is no shortage of information regarding PFAS and their impacts on human health; the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a subdivision of the CDC, has published a 993-page toxicology profile on their website that lists biomarkers of exposure, susceptible populations, and insights gained from toxicokinetic analysis.

Despite this widespread attention, these persistent chemicals still manage to find their way into our water sources, impacting ecosystems and human health.

“For pollutants in general, there are two main paths,” said senior Akul Rana. “One is direct spillage into rivers and lakes, and the other is contaminated water percolating into the water table, which denotes the upper layer of groundwater underneath the soil.” 

He further explained that synthetic chemical pollutants can travel above ground, transported by runoff, but can also leach into soil horizons if conditions are moist enough. 

Last summer, Rana was selected for the United States Earth Science Organization’s Training Camp, a week-long residential program for the nation’s top students in environmental and geological sciences. The camp covers topics including air quality, groundwater leaching, and pollution prevention, with emphasis placed on environmental law.

Junior Ravi Parikh has also studied the PFAS crisis through a legislative lens. An accomplished policy debater, he expressed that his extensive research on drinking water contaminants led him to conclude that regulating per- and polyfluorinated substances should be one of the EPA’s most influential regulation policies.

“Unlike traditional chemical substances in aquatic bodies, PFAS are uniquely dangerous as they do not degrade within the human body or the environment,” said Parikh. “As a result, they will continually build up within the body and threaten critical bodily functions, especially human fertility.” 

However, Parikh feels that the EPA has lacked urgency.

 “Although numerous statistics underline the dangers of PFAS, the EPA has lacked the initiative to enforce regulatory policies.” 

He attributes this apathy to a “gridlock” within the government agency. 

“The passage of policy to regulate chemical misuse is incredibly complex due to the delegation of regulation to smaller administrative bodies,” said Parikh 

Parikh suggested that this continuous chain of delegation not only increases delays but additionally leads to a lack of legislative consistency; prior to the EPA’s recent announcement of a new federal maximum on PFA concentration in tap water, policies regarding PFAS largely varied from state to state. 

“The massive inefficiency within the EPA [is] compounded by the prospect of a potential resource tradeoff,” said Parikh. 

The federal agency must make decisions on which issues to prioritize, and due to the fragile nature of these policies, true reform often takes longer than expected. Historically, the EPA has been slow to respond to emerging environmental threats since its founding in 1970 under the Nixon administration. In addressing the PFAS crisis, the federal government is still playing catch-up: according to recent surveys, many common fertilizers contain PFAS, and the agricultural sector has remained largely unchecked by the EPA’s response to chemical hazards.

“It is an open problem in its current state; we have not yet pinpointed a sustainable, cost-effective solution,” said Rana.

Edited by Ayan Chaganthi

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