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The EPA is taking steps to regulate toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water. What does that mean for Vermont?

There are a number of initiatives in the works to address PFAS in drinking water.
Federal regulators have for the first time proposed major limits on so-called "forever chemicals" in drinking water.

For the first time, federal regulators have proposed major limits on PFAS in public drinking water.

The so-called forever chemicals, used in manufacturing, have been linked to serious health issues, like cancer.

Vermont is one of several states that already regulates PFAS in drinking water. But what the feds propose goes beyond Vermont's regulations for public water supplies, particularly for two of the more notorious compounds: PFOA and PFOS.

However, the two regulations aren’t quite apples to apples — in some places Vermont’s existing regulations are stronger.

So what does this push for a nationwide standard mean for Vermont? We break it down below.

What are so-called “forever chemicals,” or PFAS, and how prevalent are they?

PFAS, which stands for “per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” are a big class of human-made chemicals that have been used in manufacturing since the 1940s.

They never ever break down, or do so very slowly on their own — hence “forever” — and stay in a person’s bloodstream indefinitely. They’re often associated with things like waterproofing, flame resistance and stainproofing.

More from NPR: EPA warns that even tiny amounts of chemicals found in drinking water pose risks

They’re super useful! And as a result, they’re used widely in everything from ski jackets to carpets and cosmetics, nonstick cookware, even menstrual products and firefighting foam.

They’ve been linked to health issues like cancer and low birth rates, among others.

Take a water sample in a sink.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
A person takes a water sample from a sink in Clarendon in 2018.

How does Vermont regulate PFAS in drinking water now?

Vermont is one of a dozen or so states that beat the federal government to regulating PFAS in drinking water. In some ways, Vermont’s regulations go further than what the EPA has proposed.

Vermont regulates PFAS in both groundwater and public drinking water supplies.

That lets the state regulate PFAS in private wells, which is where about 40% of Vermonters get their water.

Vermont regulates five forever chemicals in drinking water: PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, PFHpA and PFNA. If the chemicals are found in any combination at more than 20 parts per trillion in drinking water, it’s not safe to drink.

The EPA’s plan would not regulate PFHpA.

What is the Environmental Protection Agency proposing for federal regulations?

The EPA is proposing strict limits on PFOA and PFOS at 4 parts per trillion, the lowest scientists can detect. That’s substantially stricter than Vermont’s standard now.

But the agency wants to regulate four other PFAS chemicals in combination: PFHxS, GenX chemicals, PFNA and PFBS.

"The fact that the proposed guidelines by the EPA are so low should be a wake-up call to all of us about how toxic these chemicals are,” said Marguerite Adelman, who coordinates the Vermont PFAS Military Poisons Coalition, a grassroots advocacy group.

Right now, Vermont does not regulate PFBS or GenX chemicals, which are newer and sometimes used to replace older PFAS in clothing and other items.

More from NPR: EPA moves to limit toxic 'forever chemicals' in drinking water

In short: the EPA’s proposed regulations are tougher than Vermont’s on PFOA and PFOS, but don’t include one chemical Vermont regulates now. And the agency proposes regulating two other chemicals Vermont doesn’t limit.

The EPA regulations would also require public water systems monitor for the chemicals, notify the public when they find them and bring their levels down if they are too high.

Will this proposed regulation actually do something to stem the spread of these chemicals?

According to at least one environmental law expert, yes — particularly for PFOS and PFOA.

“You can think of this rule as setting a zero standard for these two chemicals nationwide,” said Patrick Parenteau at Vermont Law School. “... The market for these chemicals is virtually disappearing.”

Parenteau says when the regulations are final, it’s likely the liability associated with these chemicals could bankrupt even the large companies that manufacture them — similar to what happened with PCBs and asbestos.

But, Parenteau says it’s also likely those companies will challenge any final regulations in court.

A river pools along a rocky bank to form the Salmon Hole fishing area along the Winooski River, with autumn trees in the background.
Matthew Smith
The Salmon Hole area of the Winooski River. It, along with the Gilbrook Reservoir, were among the areas tested for PFAS chemicals by the activist group Vermont PFAS/Military Poisons Coalition.

What does this mean for Vermont’s regulations?

Like us, state regulators just got this news Tuesday, so they’re still figuring that out.

The EPA’s proposed regulations will go through a long public comment process. During that time, the Agency of Natural Resources and Department of Health will look at the supporting research the EPA released and decide what makes sense for Vermont going forward.

"At a minimum,” says John Schmeltzer, the deputy commissioner at Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation, “we’re going to have to meet these proposed standards eventually, once they’re finalized.”

Do we know how many towns in Vermont might have drinking water that exceeds the EPA’s draft limits for PFAS?

Vermont’s 700 or so water suppliers are already testing drinking water for PFAS.

Recent data analysis by the DEC found that 16 public drinking water systems in Vermont currently exceed the state standards for PFAS.

An additional 60 public drinking water systems have detectable levels of the PFAS that Schmeltzer says are below Vermont’s standard of 20 parts per trillion but could very well exceed the EPA’s proposed more rigorous limit.

Vermont is just starting to test groundwater and wells around the state for PFAS. We won’t know the full scale of impact until those results come back, too.

Schmeltzer, with the DEC, said it’s hard to say if there are parts of Vermont that will be more impacted by the EPA’s rule than others.

“We are finding impacts from PFAS in water systems throughout the whole entire state,” he said.

This sounds expensive. Who’s going to pay for it?

It is going to be expensive. Some of this is too soon to tell.

But so far, in Vermont, Schmeltzer with the DEC says there are $25 million in federal bipartisan infrastructure law funds available to help public water systems address emerging contaminants like PFAS.

However, Parenteau with Vermont Law School says there isn’t enough federal funding to fix this problem.

“States like Vermont in particular are going to have to continue to lobby through our Congressional delegation in Congress for more money to make sure that all of the water suppliers in Vermont… are going to be able to comply with this rule,” Parenteau said.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with climate and environment reporter Abagael Giles@AbagaelGiles.

Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.