Nearly two years after Maine imposed some of the nation’s first limits on industrial pollutants known as “forever chemicals,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed nationwide drinking water standards that agency officials said will save thousands of lives and prevent serious illnesses, including cancer.

While Maine’s drinking water standards are already forcing many water providers to install treatment systems, the proposed national limits are even stricter and would force additional suppliers to filter drinking water or find new sources.

Radhika Fox, assistant administrator for water with the EPA, shown in November 2022, said, “The science is clear that long-term exposure to PFAS is linked to significant health risks.” Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

The plan marks the first time the EPA has proposed such limits for PFAS, a group of compounds that are now widespread in the environment and expensive to remove from water or contaminated soils. PFAS, or per- and polyfluorinated substances, don’t degrade in the environment and are linked to a broad range of health issues, including low birthweight babies and kidney cancer. The agency says drinking water is a significant source of PFAS exposure for people. If approved, the federal rules could go into effect in late 2023 or early 2024.

“The science is clear that long-term exposure to PFAS is linked to significant health risks,” Radhika Fox, assistant EPA administrator for water, told the Associated Press. The agency estimates the rule could reduce PFAS exposure for nearly 100 million Americans, decreasing rates of cancer, heart attacks and birth complications.

The chemicals had been used since the 1940s in consumer products and industry, including in nonstick pans, food packaging and firefighting foam. Their use is now mostly phased out in the United States, but some still remain. Meanwhile, the compounds continue to accumulate and circulate in the environment.

Maine’s public drinking water supplies are now being tested statewide for the first time. Those that have PFAS levels above the state’s limit are installing filtration equipment or, in some cases, seeking new water supplies.


Sarah Woodbury, advocacy director for Maine’s Defend Our Health group, which has lobbied for more regulation of PFAS chemicals, applauded the EPA’s proposed limits.

“They are more protective than Maine’s current standards, even though Maine has one of the most stringent standards in the nation,” Woodbury said. “Clean drinking water is a basic human right that everybody should have. We have had people in Maine exposed to these dangerous chemicals for years.”

Jackie Farwell, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement that “Gov. (Janet) Mills understands the risk that (PFAS) pose to the lives and livelihoods of Maine people, which is why her administration has taken aggressive action to address PFAS contamination. In 2021, the Legislature approved, and the governor signed into law, an interim drinking water standard for PFAS, making Maine one of only a dozen states at the time to proactively address PFAS in drinking water.”

The state has earmarked $100 million in state and federal money over the past two years to address the costs of dealing with PFAS, which also have contaminated farm fields and products from cow milk to vegetables.

While even traces of PFAS in drinking water are considered a threat to human health, modern laboratories cannot reliably measure levels below 4 parts per trillion. That is the EPA’s proposed limit for two common forms of PFAS.

Most of Maine’s public water systems, especially large water districts such as those serving Greater Portland, Bangor, Lewiston and Auburn, are detecting contamination levels below what would be the new federal standard of 4 parts per trillion of PFOA and PFOS, according to state data.


Seth Garrison, general manager of the Portland Water District, said in a statement that they are “pleased to report that our latest round of testing for 25 PFAS compounds found none detected in our drinking water. We were anticipating the U.S. EPA announcement on PFAS and have been preparing for the release of a standard. We are carefully monitoring for PFAS contamination and the impacts on public health.”

In addition to limits of 4 parts per trillion (ppt) for two of the most common compounds in the PFAS family, the EPA also wants to regulate the combined amount of four other types of PFAS, although the proposed rule does not include a specific limit for those.


Maine’s regulatory standards are not directly comparable to the EPA proposal because the state sets a combined limit on six chemicals, including the two targeted by the EPA. The combined limit is 20 ppt.

All Maine drinking water supplies are required to test for the six types of PFAS and report the results to the state. Water suppliers with more than 20 ppt of the six chemicals must treat their water to remove the contaminants or switch to another water source.

Schools and other public facilities also must test and some have found high levels. The Frank Jewett Elementary School in Buxton, for example, found levels exceeding 150 ppt and is pursuing treatment, according to the state.


Because the state’s limit is based on combined levels of six chemicals and the proposed federal limit specifies limits for individual contaminants, some water districts, including Yarmouth, Augusta, Brunswick and Hallowell, comply with the state’s standard but could potentially have to upgrade their systems to meet the new federal standards.

Bradley Sawyer, deputy director of the Maine Rural Water Association, a nonprofit that advocates for rural water suppliers across Maine, said that many water providers would need to upgrade to comply with the regulations, and he hopes the government provides enough money to do so.

“What we are hearing is that it would roughly double the amount of systems in Maine that need to comply with the new standards,” Sawyer said. The EPA announced a $9 billion initiative on Tuesday to help bring water systems into compliance.

The EPA also will regulate two forever chemicals that are not included in the Maine state standard – PFBS and GenX – although it’s unclear exactly how those chemicals will be regulated in public drinking water supplies. That could force Maine water providers to conduct additional testing.

The public will have a chance to comment on the EPA’s proposal and the agency can make changes before issuing a final rule, which is expected by the end of the year. Water providers will be given time to come into compliance.

The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, a national group, said the proposal is “a step in the right direction,” but compliance will be challenging. Despite available federal money, “significant rate increases will be required for most of the systems” that must remove PFAS, the group said Tuesday.



The American Chemistry Council, an industry group, criticized the proposal as overly conservative and said the EPA did not follow scientific protocols.

“The EPA’s misguided approach to these (standards) is important, as these low limits will likely result in billions of dollars in compliance costs,” the council’s written statement says. “The proposals have important implications for broader drinking water policy priorities and resources, so it’s critical that EPA gets the science right.”

Environmental and public health advocates have called for federal regulation of PFAS chemicals for years. Over the last decade, the EPA has repeatedly strengthened its protective, voluntary health thresholds for the chemicals but has not imposed mandatory limits on water providers.

Public concern has increased nationwide in recent years as testing reveals PFAS chemicals in a growing list of communities that are often near manufacturing plants or military bases. In Maine, the concerns have focused on farms and water supplies where the state had permitted spreading sludge from industrial producers and sewage treatment plants on agricultural fields. The state has banned such spreading in response to the contamination, and the state is struggling to find a long-term solution to disposing of the sludge.

No state has set drinking water limits as strict as what the EPA is proposing. By regulating PFOA and PFOS at the minimum amounts that tests can detect, the EPA is proposing the tightest possible standards that are technically feasible, experts said.


“This is a really historic moment,” said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. “There are many communities that have had PFAS in their water for decades who have been waiting for a long time for this announcement to come out.”

The agency said its proposal will protect everyone, including vulnerable communities, and reduce illness on a massive scale. The EPA wants water providers to do testing, notify the public when PFAS are found and remove the compounds when levels are too high.

Utilities that have high levels of a contaminant are typically given time to fix problems, but they could face fines or loss of federal grants if problems persist.

“Communities across this country have suffered far too long from the ever-present threat of PFAS pollution,″ EPA Administrator Michael Regan said. The EPA’s proposal could prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses, he said, “and marks a major step toward safeguarding all our communities from these dangerous contaminants.”

The EPA recently made $2 billion available to states to get rid of contaminants such as PFAS and will release billions more in coming years.

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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