Federal environmental regulators are issuing a health advisory on drinking water contaminated with a toxic chemical used to make carpet stain resistant and nonstick pans slick.

Last year, University of Georgia researchers found “staggeringly high” levels of the chemical — perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA — in the Conasauga River. The chemical was discharged into the river through Dalton, Ga.’s wastewater treatment system.

Now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is advising people to reduce consumption of water containing more than 0.4 parts per billion of PFOA — a level critics say is not strict enough.

Studies have linked PFOA with cancer, liver damage and birth defects. An EPA advisory board calls the chemical a “likely carcinogen.”

The EPA statement is an advisory, not an order, and water companies are not now required to test for the chemical. EPA documents defend the advisory as sufficient to protect people from harmful short-term exposures to PFOA.

Dalton Utilities spokeswoman Lori McDaniel said water officials there will take no action until regulators require it.

“Dalton Utilities has taken no action regarding PFOA or PFOS (a related compound) and will take no action until the regulatory agencies who permit our operations provide us with guidance indicating that any action is necessary,” she said. “To date, none of the regulatory agencies overseeing our operations have communicated any information to us on this matter.”

Some scientists have proposed limits as low as 0.02 parts per billion, but critics called EPA’s advisory a last-minute effort by the Bush administration to help avoid regulation for companies that make PFOA, which include DuPont.

Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit and nonpartisan health and environment group, is one of those critics.

“By casting its first PFOA health standard as a nonbinding ‘advisory,’ the Bush EPA would undermine the agency’s voluntary program which has already succeeded in gaining agreement from DuPont, 3M and six other major chemical companies to phase PFOA out of use in consumer products,” she stated in a report issued Wednesday.

PFOA builds up in the environment and the bloodstream and does not break down easily, Ms. Houlihan said, so people who drink PFOA-contaminated tap water are exposed long-term — day after day, year after year. The advisory doesn’t address long-term exposure.

“Studies of communities with contaminated tap water show the chemical concentrates in human blood to levels 100 times higher than found in the water they drink,” she said. “The proposed standard ignores this fact. The practical effect of this first-ever federal safety level would be to sanction long-term exposures at unsafe levels under the guise of a short-term advisory.”