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EPA to limit toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water, with big implications for Colorado

A clear glass being held under a faucet and filled with water. A hand holds the glass, which is nearly full.
Brittany Peterson/AP
Betty Rivas cleans dishes using tap water Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023, in Commerce City, Colo. Rivas was startled by a letter telling her that the drinking fountains her 8-year-old used at school weren't safe. Her family is one of many in the community who do not drink the tap water and instead buy water from potable refill stations around town. (AP Photo/Brittany Peterson)

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed new drinking water standards this week for the increasingly pervasive toxic chemicals known as PFAS.

The new standards would substantially lower the threshold for six per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Once the rule is finalized, water systems will have three years to comply. The EPA believes it will prevent thousands of deaths and PFAS-related illnesses.

“Through this proposed rule, EPA is leveraging the most recent science and building on existing state efforts to limit PFAS and provide a nationwide, health-protective standard for these specific PFAS in drinking water,” said EPA spokesperson Melissa Sullivan in an email.

Toxic PFAS chemicals are found in multiple products, ranging from waterproof clothing to firefighting foams and ski waxes. Often called "forever chemicals" because they don’t break down easily, PFAS are linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems.

The new standard would have big implications for Colorado, which has more PFAS-contaminated sites than any other state, according to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Dozens of public drinking water sources in the state would be deemed toxic, as the Denver Post has reported. An Environmental Working Group map shows relatively few contaminated sites elsewhere in the Mountain West.

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan advocated for the agency’s work at a press conference in North Carolina on Tuesday.

“Folks across this country deserve real solutions,” he said. “They deserve clean air, and water and a government that is committed to ensuring that they have access to those.”

Many environmental groups – including Toxic-Free Future and Safer States – praised the efforts.

“These proposed standards are a positive step forward and reinforce the need for all parts of government to address the PFAS crisis,” Sarah Doll, national director of Safer States, said in a press release. “We urge the federal government to continue to follow the lead of states and phase out the production and use of these chemicals in favor of safer solutions so that we stop adding PFAS to our already polluted water, land, and air.”

The proposed standards are currently open for public comment for the next two months, following publication in the Federal Register. They could take effect by year's end.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the General Assignment Reporter and Back-Up Host for KUNC, here to keep you up-to-date on news in Northern Colorado — whether I'm out in the field or sitting in the host chair. From city climate policies, to businesses closing, to the creativity of Indigenous people, I'll research what is happening in your backyard and share those stories with you as you go about your day.
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