Addressing PFAS Contamination: New Water Regulation Measures

Ryan Quigley Headshot
Authored By: Ryan Quigley National Water/Wastewater Specialist
Hand holding blocked letters that spell out the forever chemical, PFAS, short for polyfluoroalkyl substances


In recent years, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS or forever chemicals, have become a concern in water quality and public health. The issue with PFAS chemicals is they don’t break down easily and end up in our water sources worldwide—in drinking water, rivers, and underground reservoirs. Given their chemical stability and resistance to degradation, the EPA recently introduced new PFAS regulations, the National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (or Safe Water Drinking Act), to safeguard human health and the environment. Read on to learn more about our current understanding of PFAS and the EPA’s plans to mitigate their risk.

Forever Chemicals: Understanding PFAS Contamination

What are PFAS and how long have they been around?

PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of synthetic chemicals characterized by their strong carbon-fluorine bonds. They have been widely used in various industrial and consumer projects due to their unique resistance to heat, water, grease, and stains. The PFAS group includes thousands of different compounds, with some of the most well-known examples being perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). These chemicals were introduced in the 1940s and have been used in everyday products like non-stick cookware, food packaging, waterproof clothing, stain-resistant fabrics, carpets, and firefighting foams.

PFAS are concerning because they persist in the environment—they don’t break down easily and can build up in soil, water, and living organisms. This persistence, coupled with their mobility in water, has led to contamination of drinking water, groundwater, surface water bodies, and soil in various parts of the world.

Sources of PFAS Contamination

In the late 1990s, scientific studies began to investigate the environmental presence of PFAS, particularly around industrial sites where these chemicals were used in manufacturing processes. The initial research focused on understanding the sources and extent of the PFAS contamination. However, it wasn’t until the early 2000s when elevated levels of PFAS, such as PFOA and PFOS, were first detected in drinking water supplies near industrial facilities and military bases where firefighting foams containing PFAS were used. West Virginia, Minnesota, and Ohio communities were among the first to report PFAS contamination in their water sources.

As awareness of PFAS contamination grew, affected communities raised concerns about potential health effects. In the mid-2000s, health studies began to investigate the links between PFAS exposure and adverse health outcomes, including cancer, reproductive issues, and immune system disorders. In response to these growing concerns, the United States Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies launched efforts to regulate PFAS use, limit environmental contamination, and mitigate exposure to these chemicals, including setting health advisory levels and expanding monitoring and testing programs to identify affected areas.

While there have been many PFAS contaminations throughout the US, notable sites include the following. These instances highlight the widespread nature of PFAS contamination in the U.S. and its impact on communities.

  • Parkersburg, West Virginia (Mid-2000s): The discovery of PFAS contamination in water supplies near a manufacturing facility brought attention to the widespread presence of PFOA in the area. This contamination was linked to health concerns and led to legal actions against the manufacturing company.
  • Air Force Bases: Multiple U.S. military bases were found to have PFAS contamination due to the historical use of firefighting foam containing PFAS. This contamination has affected nearby communities and led to clean-up efforts.
  • Minnesota and Michigan (multiple locations): PFAS contamination was detected in various communities across Minnesota and Michigan, particularly around areas with industrial facilities and landfills where PFAS-containing materials were disposed of. Contaminated drinking water sources have prompted regulatory and remediation efforts.
  • North Carolina: Several communities have experienced PFAS contamination in their water supplies. This contamination has been linked to industrial discharges and waste disposal practices.

Common Water Sources Affected by PFAS

PFAS are highly soluble in water, which enables them to move easily through groundwater and surface water systems. Once released into the environment, PFAS can travel long distances and contaminate nearby water sources. To date, PFAS contamination has been found in various water sources, including:

  • Drinking Water Supplies: PFAS can contaminate drinking water sources, including public water systems and private wells.
  • Surface Water Bodies: Lakes, rivers, and streams can become contaminated with PFAS through runoff from nearby industrial facilities, landfills, or wastewater treatment plants. Surface water contamination can also occur from firefighting foam runoff during training exercises or firefighting activities.
  • Groundwater: PFAS can infiltrate groundwater from contaminated soil or industrial activities where PFAS were used or disposed of improperly. Groundwater contamination can persist for long periods due to PFAS’s resistance to degradation.
  • Private Wells: Individuals relying on private wells for drinking water may be at risk of PFAS contamination, especially if the wells are located near sources of PFAS pollution, such as industrial sites.
  • Aquatic Ecosystems: PFAS can bioaccumulate in aquatic organisms, such as fish and shellfish, leading to contamination of the food chain and potential exposure to humans through the consumption of contaminated seafood.

Emerging Concerns: The Health and Environmental Impact of PFAS

Health and Environmental Impacts

Since the late 1990s, scientists have been studying the effects of PFAS on the human body and the environment. Studies, including the C8 Science Panel, which was established as part of a settlement related to the PFAS contamination in West Virginia and Ohio, suggest probable links from PFOA exposure to issues such as increased cholesterol, immune system dysfunction, liver damage, thyroid disease, developmental effects, reproductive issues, cancer risks, and endocrine disruptions. Newer studies suggest that health effects can arise from lower exposure concentrations than previously thought to be harmful. However, it is important to note the extent and severity of health effects from PFAS exposure can vary by the type of PFAS compound, level of exposure, duration of exposure, and individual susceptibility.

In addition to water and soil contamination, PFAS have had a considerable environmental impact. Because PFAS can bioaccumulate in the food chain, they can potentially harm wildlife species. They can also disrupt ecosystem balance and biodiversity by affecting the health and reproductive success of plants, animals, and microorganisms. This can lead to ripple effects throughout entire ecosystems.

Challenges: Monitoring and Detecting PFAS

Due to their widespread use and complex chemical structures, detecting and monitoring PFAS has posed quite a challenge. Some of the key challenges include:

  • Diverse Range of PFAS Compounds: There are thousands of PFAS compounds, each with different toxicity and environmental persistence. Detecting and quantifying this diverse range of compounds requires specialized analytical techniques.
  • Low Concentrations in the Environment: Detecting PFAS at trace levels requires highly sensitive analytical methods to measure concentrations in parts per trillion (ppt) or parts per billion (ppb).
  • Sampling Complexity: Sampling for PFAS in the environment requires careful consideration of sampling techniques, sample preservation, and storage options to prevent contamination and ensure sample integrity. PFAS can absorb in surface materials, complicating sample collection and analysis.
  • Cost and Resource Intensity: PFAS monitoring and analysis can be costly and resource-intensive, requiring specialized equipment, skilled personnel, and laboratory facilities with state-of-the-art instrumentation. This can pose challenges for communities and regulatory agencies with limited resources.
  • Regulatory Complexity: Regulatory frameworks for PFAS vary across regions and countries, making it challenging to establish consistent monitoring programs and enforce compliance with regulatory limits. Continued research and collaboration are needed to develop comprehensive regulations for PFAS management.

Safeguarding our Water Systems: New EPA Regulations

The National Primary Drinking Water Regulation

On April 10, 2024, the EPA announced the first National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR), or the Safe Water Drinking Act, for six types of PFAS. The six PFAS compounds include PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, PFNA, HFPO-DA (also known as GenX Chemicals), and mixtures containing two or more of PFHxS, PFNA, HFPO-DA, and PFBS. With the new ruling, the EPA expects that over many years, it will “prevent PFAS exposure in drinking water for approximately 100 million people, prevent thousands of deaths, and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses”. The final rule is the first to establish legally enforceable levels or maximum contaminant levels (MCLs). As a result, public water utilities will be responsible for:

  1. Monitoring for these six PFAS. Public water systems will have three years to complete initial monitoring (by 2027) and will continue with ongoing monitoring and compliance. Beginning in 2027, they must also share this information with the public.
  2. Implementing solutions to reduce these six PFAS. Public water systems will have five years (by 2029) to implement solutions that reduce PFAS if their monitoring shows levels that exceed the maximum contaminant levels.
  3. Notifying the public of any violations. Beginning in 2029, public water systems that violate the rule by having one more PFAS at levels above the MCL must take action to rectify the issue. Further, they must provide public notice of the violation.

To help states and territories comply with the ruling, the EPA announced roughly $1 billion in funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure law. The funding will help public water systems and owners of private wells address PFAS contamination according to the compliance deadlines mentioned above. The EPA estimates between 6-10% of the 66,000 public water systems subject to this rule may have to take action to meet these standards. Through a range of available technologies, including granular activated carbon, reverse osmosis, and ion exchange systems, water systems will be able to minimize PFAS below enforceable levels.

Limitations in Current Regulations

While the EPA’s ruling is a big step in the right direction, several limitations remain. First, the existing regulation focuses on only six main PFAS, despite the thousands of other PFAS compounds. Further, there are limited regulations for PFAS use in textiles, food packaging, and non-stick coatings. This can contribute to ongoing exposure to PFAS through everyday products and materials. Lastly, remediation is complex and costly and can vary depending on the contaminants found under the ruling.

PFAS Future Outlook: Implementation Challenges

Estimated Costs of the EPAs National Primary Drinking Water Regulation

While the EPA has announced funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the agency estimates that implementing the regulations will cost public water systems roughly $1.548 billion per year. These costs include water system monitoring, communicating with customers, and, if necessary, obtaining new or additional water sources or installing and maintaining treatment technologies to reduce the levels of the six PFAS in drinking water. Further, they expect the rule will cause additional non-quantifiable costs associated with increased costs from the treatment of Hazard Index, HFPO-DA, and/or PFNA MCL exceedances.

The WEF and AWWA disagree with the EPA estimate. Both organizations cite a study by Black & Veatch that estimates “the cost will be in excess of $3.8 billion annually, according to the study, and the vast majority of the treatment costs will be borne by communities and ratepayers.”

Technological Limitations of Enforcing New PFAS Regulations

Implementing and enforcing new PFAS regulations pose several practical challenges hindering regulation and management. On the technical side, detecting and quantifying PFAS compounds in environmental samples requires advanced analytical methods with high sensitivity and specificity. However, the complexity of PFAS chemistry and thousands of PFAS variants make it challenging to develop reliable sampling techniques. Regarding remediation, PFAS have proven challenging to remove due to their persistence and mobility. Effective PFAS remediation, such as advanced oxidation processes or activated carbon treatment, can be costly and resource-intensive, as mentioned in the estimated costs above.

Legal Complexities for Enforcing New PFAS Regulations

In the past, PFAS regulations have often faced legal complexities due to differences in regulatory frameworks at the federal, state, and local levels. Coordinating and harmonizing across jurisdictions has been challenging, making the EPA ruling a step in the right direction. Enforcing the new ruling may prove difficult, as regulatory agencies may encounter enforcement challenges, including monitoring compliance, conducting inspections, and enforcing penalties for noncompliance. Determining liability for PFAS contamination and allocating responsibility for cleanup costs can lead to legal disputes among affected parties. Legal frameworks for addressing PFAS liability may vary by region, adding complexity to enforcement challenges.

Industry Resistance or Political Opposition

Addressing concerns about potential resistance from industries or political opposition to stricter regulations surrounding PFAS in water supplies requires a comprehensive approach balancing environmental protection with economic considerations. Industries that manufacture or use PFAS-containing products may oppose stricter regulations due to concerns about increased compliance costs, potential impacts on business operations, and competitiveness in the marketplace. Similarly, political opposition may arise from lawmakers representing constituents with ties to affected industries or regions.

Overcoming resistance to stricter PFAS regulations requires a multi-faceted approach that balances economic considerations with public health and environmental protection. By fostering collaboration, building consensus, and emphasizing the shared benefits of regulatory action, policymakers can navigate political challenges and advance meaningful reforms to address PFAS contamination effectively.

Funding Options

As part of the new EPA ruling, funds were allocated from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to support public water systems in addressing PFAS contamination. However, given estimates from WEF and AWWA, costs may exceed the budgeted allotment. Energy performance contracts may help alleviate the costs for cities and towns that must take action. Remediation technologies and other energy conservation measures can be implemented at public utilities using the guaranteed energy savings generated from those improvements. These improvements can include smart city technologies enabling your utility to work smarter, not harder. Our in-house experts can help find the right solutions for your utility while also working to mitigate PFAS.


The importance of regulating PFAS in water cannot be overstated in our efforts to protect public health and the environment. Addressing PFAS contamination requires collaborative efforts among government agencies, industries, communities, and environmental advocates. By implementing the EPA’s new water regulation measures, we can effectively mitigate the impacts of PFAS pollution and ensure cleaner, safer water for all. This collective action is crucial to safeguard our communities and environment from the harmful effects of PFAS contamination and secure a healthier future for generations to come.

Our industry experts can help you find solutions to your utility needs, including meeting new PFAS regulations. Contact us today for an initial assessment.

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