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EPA implements new regulations for 'forever chemicals.' What does that mean for Louisiana's water?

A shipping boat glides up the Mississippi River across from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' New Orleans District headquarters off of Leake Ave on Sept. 15, 2023.
Halle Parker
A shipping boat glides up the Mississippi River across from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' New Orleans District headquarters off of Leake Ave on Sept. 15, 2023.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently implemented rules that aim to reduce the amount of PFAS, or "forever chemicals," Americans are exposed to.

Because Louisiana is one of the states that has not established its own regulations, it will be subject to the federal government's standards.

Here's what we know about the prevalence of PFAS in Louisiana and what the new rules will mean for the state’s drinking water.

What are PFAS?

PFAS — which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are a class of human-made chemical compounds. They are also known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down over time. There are thousands of these chemicals and they are widespread in our soil, water and even food.

PFAS have been used in many products since the 1950s. Their danger to human health was not known publicly until the 90s, but a recent review of industry documents suggests that the chemical industry knew about their toxicity as early as the 70s.

We now know that PFAS are linked to several health issues, including kidney and liver cancer, pregnancy problems and more.

Are PFAS in our drinking water?

The EPA issued standards for six different types of PFAS in drinking water. Under the new limits, utilities will now have to test for PFAS and filter them out. The agency expects this will prevent exposure for around 100 million people who rely on public drinking water systems nationwide.

In Louisiana, PFAS have been documented in the Mississippi River, from which many of the state’s residents get their drinking water. The Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit, detected PFAS in the river near the stretch of land where many chemical plants are located, often called “Cancer Alley.” Some of the test results showed levels higher than the federal limits.

“The fact that we found it in five separate locations across the lower river system from Pointe-Coupee Parish to Orleans Parish, it feels significant,” said Rebecca Malpass, the nonprofit’s research and policy director.

She said living along the river’s farthest southern stretch means Louisianans aren’t just vulnerable to pollution from Cancer Alley, but also pollution that occurs further upstream. The company 3M, which makes products such as sticky notes, tape and masks, was sued for contaminating the Mississippi in Illinois with PFAS.

“All of that municipal and industrial pollution that's coming down from 41% of the continental U.S., is coming to us through our water,” said Malpass.

The Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans said its data shows PFAS levels under the EPA’s new limits. A spokesperson said that means the utility is not required to take any action, but the utility is reviewing its entire system and will include PFAS in its plan for upgrades. It is also pursuing funding for the issue.

There are billions of dollars available in federal funding for addressing PFAS. Malpass said the state should be going after it.

“I think that's going to be really important so that the financial burden isn't passed down to ratepayers,” she said.

Who is responsible for the cleanup?

Louisiana’s chemical industry could also be impacted by the EPA’s new standards. The EPA added two widely used PFAS, called PFOA and PFOS, to the hazardous substances list. That means that under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, also known as Superfund, companies can now be investigated and forced to pay for their PFAS pollution.

Kayla Weiser-Burton, an attorney at Dorsey & Whitney who specializes in environmental compliance, said she expects chemical companies in Louisiana to be affected, especially the ones associated with Dow Chemical Company.

“It's really that industrial group specifically that I think are going to have to analyze what it is that they're currently using in their products and their processes,” she said, “and whether there's a way to shift away from PFAS.”

But she also expects companies to fight back and challenge the rule.

“I think opponents are likely going to argue that EPA did not adequately consider the costs of the implementation of this rule, which is in direct violation of their statutory authority,” she said.

The EPA said it will focus on facilities that are releasing a significant amount of PFAS into the environment. But because PFAS are so widespread in the nation’s soil and water already, it will be challenging to determine which companies are responsible for putting it there.

How can you protect yourself?

Unfortunately, using bottled water is not a reliable way to avoid exposure. The International Bottled Water Association does claim that its members test for PFAS annually. But a study by Johns Hopkins University researchers found that many bottled water brands are not safe from PFAS. Out of the 101 products they tested, 31 contained PFAS.

“No matter where bottled water comes from, it's largely unregulated,” said Amy Lesen, a researcher at the Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center at Dillard University.

Lesen recommends researching at-home water filters to suit your needs. Reverse osmosis filters reduce PFAS by an average of 94% according to a study from Duke University and North Carolina State University, but are generally more expensive. Activated carbon filters tend to be cheaper, but their effectiveness varies from filter to filter. Overall, carbon filters reduce PFAS by an average of 73%.

To help decide which filter might be best for you, the Environmental Working Group has a guide for selecting a water filter.

Lesen also said we can help make sure the new rules are actually followed.

“The onus is really on the elected appointed officials and our legal system in Louisiana, and us as residents, to put pressure on our leaders to enforce these new regulations."

Eva Tesfaye covers the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at