League of California Cities logoThe U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this month set a new enforceable drinking water standard for PFOA, PFOS and PFAS. All cities — especially water providers — must pay close attention to this new, costly federal standard. The EPA anticipates the mandate will cost approximately $1.5 billion annually.

What do these acronyms mean?

Better known as “forever chemicals,” PFOA, PFOS and PFAS are human-made contaminants that are resistant to heat, water and oil. Nonstick cookware, cosmetics, textiles and many other household products contain forever chemicals. This ubiquity is part of what makes this mandate extremely costly.

Scientists have linked high PFAS levels with several health problems, including high cholesterol, some cancers, decreased fertility and immune system disorders.

How do these standards get set?

Both the federal and state governments can set drinking water standards known as maximum contaminant levels. These are based on public health impacts and the ability of local agencies to treat and remove a contaminant from their water supply. States must require the federal level of protection or set a more stringent standard.

In California, policymakers have made significant efforts to eliminate and monitor PFAS. However, the state has not yet set a drinking water standard. This means these new federal levels will apply to California public water systems, including cities.

Five days before the federal announcement, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment adopted public health goals for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. These goals are a precursor to a state standard that only evaluates public health impacts. The agency set a goal of 0.007 parts per trillion for PFOA based on kidney cancer in humans. It set a goal of 1 part per trillion for PFOS based on liver and pancreatic tumors in laboratory animals.

A part per trillion is about the same as a single drop of food coloring in 18 million gallons of water or one grain of sand in an Olympic-size swimming pool.

California’s State Water Resources Control Board has already structured precautionary measures to monitor PFAS. With the federal standard and public health goals released for PFOA and PFOS, the Board will likely move forward with more stringent standards in the near future.

What does the federal rule mean for my city?

The federal standard is set at 4 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS — the two most studied forever chemicals. The EPA also set a maximum containment level of 10 parts per trillion for four other chemicals. This final federal rule will be effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, which is expected in the coming weeks.

Water systems, including cities, will have three years to complete the initial monitoring. The federal regulation also requires local governments and water utilities to inform the public of the measured levels of PFAS in their drinking water beginning in 2027.

By 2029, water systems will need to implement solutions to reduce PFAS in their drinking water. If they exceed the standards after that, they will be considered in violation of the rule. The EPA prepared several informational resources, including fact sheets, an FAQ, an educational toolkit for the public and a guide on at-home filters that can help reduce PFAS in drinking water.

What’s next?

There are well over 10,000 forever chemicals, some of which are indetectable. The best way to reduce these chemicals is to remove them from products entirely.

Cal Cities is supporting SB 903 (Skinner), which would reduce the cost of treating drinking water. The bill would ban the manufacturing, distribution or sale of any product that intentionally adds PFAS — unless it is currently unavoidable to use — by Jan. 1, 2032. The Department of Toxic Substances Control would need to develop regulations, including penalties for violations, on or before Jan. 1, 2027.

State law already prohibits the manufacturing, distribution or sale of new textiles, youth products and food packaging that contain regulated PFAS, starting Jan. 1, 2025. State law also bans cosmetic products that intentionally contain PFAS, starting Jan. 1, 2025.

Cal Cities will continue to uphold safe drinking water standards while protecting cities from the high cost of eliminating PFOA and PFAS. Cal Cities will also work with the National League of Cities to ensure federal advocacy takes this comprehensive approach to address both cost implications and liability issues of eliminating forever chemicals.

By Melissa Sparks-Kranz, environmental quality lobbyist