Op-ed: EPA regulation on ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water is lagging

glass of water

May 30, 2024—New Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits on forever chemicals in drinking water are a step in the right direction to protect the nation’s health, but they don’t go nearly far enough, according to a Washington Post op-ed by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Joseph Allen.

Allen, associate professor of exposure assessment science in the Department of Environmental Health, coined the term “forever chemicals” in 2018 to describe a type of commonly used chemicals that don’t break down and that stay in the environment—and in people’s bodies—indefinitely. These chemicals—per- or polyfluorinated alkyl substances, or PFAS—have been linked to a variety of health consequences, from cancer to reduced vaccine efficacy in children to decreased fertility in women.

In April, the EPA announced limits on six particular forever chemicals found in drinking water. But, Allen pointed out in the May 28 op-ed, there are more than 10,000 other known forever chemicals that remain unregulated. And manufacturers introduce new versions of these chemicals on an ongoing basis, to evade regulation. “This ‘chemical whack-a-mole’—in which one soon-to-be-regulated chemical is quietly swapped out with a chemical cousin with similar properties, leaving scientists and regulators playing catch-up—is a playbook that has been used for decades,” Allen wrote.

Consumers and companies must call for transparency about the products they’re buying and demand healthier options, Allen recommended. Ultimately, though, the goal should be to eliminate forever chemicals in products altogether, he added.

“To be clear, the EPA regulation is an important win,” Allen wrote. “It allows the country to begin cleaning up the mess in its water, and it pumps $1 billion into the system to help states and territories with this effort. But we also need to turn off the spigot of new chemicals put into products. Doing this one by one, or even six at a time, isn’t going to cut it.”

Read the Washington Post op-ed: The EPA is trying to regulate 6 forever chemicals. Just 10,000 to go.

Photo: iStock/Greggory DiSalvo