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Here are the White House's plans to limit PFAS in water systems

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today, the Biden administration announced the first ever national standards on the amount of PFAS in drinking water. These are man-made substances known as forever chemicals because they don't break down for a very long time. Exposure has been linked to cancer and other health concerns. And this new rule would require drinking water systems to monitor for and then remove these chemicals if needed, all within the next five years. Ali Zaidi is President Biden's national climate adviser. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ALI ZAIDI: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: How big a problem are these chemicals in drinking water? How many people in municipal water systems right now would not be in compliance with the new standards?

ZAIDI: You know, we've got, today, a hundred million Americans who are exposed to this risk. And that means thousands of systems that need better monitoring, upgrades in terms of infrastructure.

SHAPIRO: There are about a dozen states that already have PFAS limits in drinking water. Have you learned lessons from their experience? Have utilities been able to comply with those state rules?

ZAIDI: Yes, I was actually in the state of New York when we finalized those standards, working in a similar role. States have been on the forefront of pioneering some of this work alongside scientists, public health advocates, environmental advocates. We've learned approaches to effective cleanup. Utility companies have pioneered approaches to making sure these monitoring and infrastructure upgrades are taking place, which I think gives us a sense that, while this is an ambitious goal, it is also an achievable one.

SHAPIRO: Is it an expensive one? I mean, I know this announcement comes with a billion dollars in grants, but carrying out this rule, especially in big cities and underfunded places, could be expensive.

ZAIDI: Look, the technologies are known ones. There's selective ion exchange resins, membrane separation technologies that facilitate a technique called reverse osmosis - technical sounding things that do cost money. And I think in terms of resources, you're absolutely right. The federal government has to be a partner, which is why we're sending out a billion dollars to states all across the country - every territory, every state - being a partner with us.

And as we do that, one of the things we're particularly focused on is making sure rural water systems, tribal water systems get not only the dollars, but technical assistance as well. And our Environmental Protection Agency's actually set up a hub to provide that targeted technical assistance and support because we've got to do this work together.

SHAPIRO: Whether we're looking at Flint, Mich., or Jackson, Miss., the country has seen how difficult it can be to replace deteriorating water systems that, in some cases, are poisoning their citizens. What have we learned from those kinds of experiences about the challenge of implementing infrastructure like this quickly - within five years, as the new rule requires?

ZAIDI: You know, we've learned a lot. And lead pipes is a great example. We've learned, No. 1, that we've got to be investing in the workforce. So you've got plumbers and pipefitters - those unions now building an entire pipeline of workers to help replace and get the lead out. In this case, we've got to work with municipal workers upgrading water facilities.

The second big thing is making sure we're harnessing technology effectively. Here, it is very much a playbook that depends on sensors, on measurement, on data and transparency, so we can pinpoint where the problems are and get after them. And look, this is an entire ecosystem, right? The water treatment facilities are just one focal point of getting after this contamination. We've got to attack it where it's coming from.

SHAPIRO: That's Ali Zaidi, national climate adviser to President Biden, talking about new federal regulations on PFAS in drinking water. Thank you.

ZAIDI: Thank you, Sir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.