WA to adopt new regulation for 'forever chemicals' in drinking water

New federal regulations will reduce exposure to "forever chemicals" in drinking water for millions of people nationwide.

The chemicals are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, and can pose risks to human health and the environment if exposed. 

"This is a chemical that has already affected drinking water in many communities across Washington. So, there [are] people that have personal exposure, personal experience with this. And a lot of concerns out there," said Andrew Wineke with Washington State Department of Ecology.

PFAS are a large group of human-made chemicals used to make a wide variety of stain-resistant, water-resistant, and non-stick consumer products.

"PFAS are known as ‘forever chemicals’ because they’re so durable. They’re so difficult to destroy. And so, you might imagine, it takes some effort to safely dispose of these," said Wineke.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set new nationwide maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) to limit the pollution of PFAS in drinking water.

Almost half of the nation’s tap water has PFAS in it, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Washington State Department of Health (DOH) said PFAS have also been used in certain types of firefighting foams used by the military, fire departments, and airports. 

DOH said it will move forward to adopt the EPA’s new regulations, which could lead to increased testing of the harmful chemical found in some of Washington’s water systems.

The contaminant, sometimes referred to as "forever chemicals," is harmful. DOH said PFAS stay in the environment for a long time and can harm human health if they build up to high levels in the body.  

With the EPA lowering the maximum contaminant levels of PFAS in drinking water, the goal is to reduce exposure. DOH said putting the new standard into action is a welcomed transition since experts have already been testing the state’s more than 2,400 water systems.

"Our state got going early, we didn’t wait for the feds to act. And because of that, we’re well on our way to finding the water systems that have PFAS and getting those solutions started," said Barb Morrissey, a toxicologist with DOH.

"It does provide a level of certainty for our water systems and people that may be impacted across a wide array of regulations and programs where MCLs are used," said Mike Means, capacity development and policy manager with DOH. 

The EPA’s new standard, however, does present new challenges in Washington. The federal MCLs are now lower than the state action levels (SALs) the Washington State Board of Health adopted in 2021.

DOH said so far, 1,228 systems have been tested and 30 systems detected PFAS greater than the SALs. Now, meeting the EPA’s new standard could detect PFAS in even more water systems in the state.

"Based upon the sampling that’s already occurred, we’re estimating that maybe 10% or so of all of the public water systems in this category would have exceedances of an MCL. So, that puts it into the greater than 200 water systems of the greater than 2,400 water systems that we have to address," said Means. 

DOH said it’s working on a plan to increase resources and tools to test and address affected water systems.

"We do have some of what we need to be able to accomplish the required, tracking the required testing of utilities and notifying them. We’re also working on that request of information that the legislature had to try and more comprehensively define what it might actually take to address this. That’s still in action," said Means.

The PFAS limits set in 2021 by the State Board of Health will remain until the board adopts the new federal limits. DOH said that adoption can take up to two years.


Warmer autumns, winters pose threat to PNW honey bee survival, WSU study finds

West Coast whale population recovers 5 years after hundreds washed up ashore

Carnation evacuated by another false alarm from Tolt River Dam

Edge of peril: The WA erosion threat to Kalaloch Lodge's coastal haven

To get the best local news, weather and sports in Seattle for free, sign up for the daily FOX 13 Seattle newsletter.

DOH offers additional information and resources about PFAS on its website.