Can Current Laws Keep Up With PFAS?

The Clean Water Act (CWA) and Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) were both necessary and useful first steps in improving our nation’s water quality. However, while the SDWA has provisions to regularly review contaminant lists that should be included for future compliance reporting, neither act adequately address the inundation of our waters with new contaminants like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS (Weinmeyer, et al. 2017, 1020). Issues with lack of funding, inadequate regulatory coverage, lack of enforcement mechanisms, and scientific uncertainty limit these acts in sufficiently addressing the emerging challenges of PFAS contamination (Weinmeyer, et al. 2017, 1020-1024).

Instead of taking a reactionary approach to chemicals that have known health impacts, a strong water quality protection act would take a precautionary principle approach and put the onus on polluters to show that additional chemicals they are emitting are safe (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 20). Many studies are available that increasingly show the adverse health impacts of PFAS (Detroit Public TV 2019, 9:54). However, it was not until 2020 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first announced its proposed decision to regulate certain PFAS in drinking water (EPA 2020). Residents near contaminated sources are already experiencing large detrimental health impacts from these substances (Detroit Public TV 2019).

For example, the City of Airway Heights, within Spokane County of Washington state, had their drinking water sources contaminated with pollution from firefighting foam from nearby Fairchild Air Force Base (ATSDR 2022). Airway Heights had to get public water supply from the City of Spokane, and while many wells have been listed as safe to drink, much of the city’s water supply continues to be provided by the City of Spokane (ATSDR 2022). While the drinking water currently meets the EPA’s current health advisory limits and is listed as okay to use, the confidence of the locals in their water safety is low considering the reports showed that some residents had PFAS in their blood that is 56 times higher than national levels (ATSDR 2022). Chronic exposure to approved levels, combined with the unknown aspect of cumulative risks of multiple pollutants in a single glass of water, lead to questions regarding the overall efficacy of the SDWA in managing PFAS (Weinmeyer, et al. 2017, 1023).

The CWA and SDWA do a decent job at focusing on point source issues, however, with that low-hanging fruit completed, the tasks required now focus on nonpoint sources, groundwater, and hydromodifications (Salzman and Thompson 2019, 177-178). New water quality acts or provisions need to be developed to ensure more proactive protection of our nation’s water from new and novel chemicals like PFAS, as well as from the cumulative risks of multiple pollutants. As science advances in chemistry, policies need to be developed in a way that keep up with the constantly evolving body of scientific knowledge while protecting the water quality goals from shifting political landscapes.

Author: Logan Callen


ATSDR. 2022. “Spokane County, WA PFAS Exposure Assessment.” Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry – CDC. Accessed July 4, 2022.

Detroit Public TV. 2019. “The Forever Chemicals.” YouTube. March 28. Accessed July 3, 2022.

EPA. 2020. “EPA Announces Proposed Decision to Regulate PFOA and PFOS in Drinking Water.” Environmental Protection Agency. February 20. Accessed July 4, 2022.

Salzman, James, and Barton H. Jr. Thompson. 2019. Environmental Law and Policy. 5th ed. St. Paul, MN: Foundation Press.

Weinmeyer, Richard, Annalise Norling, Margaret Kawarski, and Estelle Higgins. 2017. “The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 and its Role in Providing Access to Safe Drinking Water in the United States.” AMA Journal of Ethics 19 (10): 1018-1026.

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