U.S – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has hit a milestone in its mission of safeguarding the nation’s drinking water by releasing the first dataset gathered under the fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 5).
This initiative aims to enhance the EPA’s comprehension of the prevalence and concentration of 29 per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and lithium in U.S. drinking water systems.
PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s. Due to their resistance to heat, water, and oil, they are used in a wide array of products including food packaging, cookware, and firefighting foams.
Lithium, on the other hand, is a naturally occurring element used in various industries, including the manufacture of batteries and mental health medication. It can, however, be harmful if found in high concentrations.
The data is expected to inform future actions under the Safe Drinking Water Act, focusing on public health protection.
UCMR 5’s data collection seeks to bolster science-based decision-making by shedding light on the presence of 29 PFAS and lithium in drinking water. Moreover, it will help assess whether certain communities, particularly those with environmental justice concerns, are disproportionately affected by these contaminants.
The initial data release accounts for roughly 7 percent of the total results anticipated over the next three years. These findings will be updated quarterly and made accessible to the public through EPA’s National Contaminant Occurrence Database (NCOD) until the data reporting concludes in 2026.
In March 2023, the EPA proposed standards to limit specific PFAS in drinking water. Should these proposals be finalized, public water systems can employ data from UCMR 5 to meet the rule’s initial monitoring requirements and inform communities of any necessary actions.
While awaiting the finalization of the PFAS drinking water standard, the EPA has established Health Advisories (HAs) for four PFAS included in UCMR 5.
Early insights from the Data
Based on the preliminary dataset, EPA has derived significant insights regarding the presence of contaminants in the nation’s drinking water.
Notably, two extensively researched per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), PFOA and PFOS, were discovered at or above the EPA’s minimum reporting level (MRL) during the initial sampling event in approximately 7.8–8.5 percent of the assessed public water systems (PWSs), surpassing the EPA’s Health Advisory (HA) levels.
Moreover, HFPO-DA, commonly known as “GenX chemicals,” exceeded HA levels in one out of 2,002 PWSs, while PFBS remained below the HA threshold.
For the other 25 PFAS included in UCMR 5, HA levels have not been established, yet nine of these substances were detected at or above their respective MRLs in 1–207 of the approximately 2,000 PWSs studied, leaving 16 with no reported results at or above their MRLs.
In the case of lithium, although no HA level has been published by the EPA, a Health Reference Level (HRL) has been calculated for screening purposes.
Notably, the data indicates that 22 percent of PWSs have reported lithium results above the screening HRL, underscoring the importance of continued monitoring and regulatory efforts to ensure safe drinking water.
Comprehensive PFAS management
In addition to data collection, the EPA is expanding efforts to investigate and remediate PFAS-contaminated sites.
The agency is also implementing new regulations to hold polluters accountable for contamination from commonly used PFAS chemicals. Furthermore, it has issued orders requiring PFAS manufacturers to conduct testing under the National Testing Strategy.
EPA is allocating U.S$9 billion to support communities impacted by PFAS and other emerging contaminants in their drinking water.
This includes U.S$4 billion through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) and U.S$5 billion through the “Emerging Contaminants in Small or Disadvantaged Communities” grant program.
These funds will empower communities to make crucial investments in solutions aimed at removing PFAS from their drinking water, reinforcing the agency’s commitment to public health and environmental protection.