Forever chemical PFAS pollution


The UK and Europe’s enormous ‘forever chemical’ pollution has been revealed.

Revealed: The scope of the “forever chemical” pollution in the UK and Europe A significant mapping project reveals that PFAS have been detected in high concentrations at thousands of locations.

A major mapping project has shown that pollutants known as “forever chemicals,” which don’t break down in the environment, build up in the body, and may be toxic, have been found at high levels at thousands of locations across the UK and Europe.

According to the map, a variety of consumer goods, firefighting foams, waste, and industrial processes have all introduced per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a family of approximately 10,000 chemicals valued for their non-stick and detergent properties.

Numerous health issues have been linked to two PFAS. Thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, and pregnancy-induced hypertension have all been linked to PFOA. Reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, and thyroid diseases have all been linked to PFOS. Immunotoxicity has been linked to PFAS at lower concentrations.

Around 17,000 locations in the UK and Europe have yielded the substances. From these, PFAS have been found in high concentrations of more than 10,000ng/l at 300 locations and more than 1,000ng/l at 640 locations.

“These sorts of concentrations raise concerns with me,” said Prof Crispin Halsall, an environmental chemist at Lancaster University. “You have the risk of livestock gaining access to those waters and [then PFAS is] in the human food web.” Halsall says there are also risks involving people “accessing wildlife as food sources like fishing and wildfowl”.

The map reveals that 3M’s PFAS manufacturing site in Zwijndrecht, Flanders, was found to have PFAS in groundwater at concentrations of up to 73m ng/l, making Belgium the country with the highest pollution levels.

It has been advised that people living within 15 kilometers (nine miles) of the site should not consume any eggs or vegetables grown at home. In the meantime, a blood test to check for the presence of PFAS has been offered to 70,000 people who live within a 5 km (3 mi) radius of the plant. 3M claims that it has “signed an agreement with the Flemish region… with an investment amount of €571m” (£503m) and will remediate the site. Additionally, it has stated that by the end of 2025, it will “work to discontinue the use of PFAS across its product portfolio.”

Soils in the vicinity of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport have been contaminated by an accident involving PFAS in firefighting foam in the Netherlands, resulting in extremely high levels of PFOS. Similar issues have been found in some German military installations and airports.

In the United Kingdom, a chemicals plant discharge on the River Wyre, above Blackpool, contained the highest concentration of PFAS. According to data from Defra’s Centre for Environment, Fisheries, and Aquaculture Science, flounder contained up to 11,000ng/kg of PFAS when tested in the river.

Sites with readings above 1,000ng/kg should be “urgently assessed,” according to Stockholm University environmental scientist Prof. Ian Cousins, so that they can be remedied.

“At [highly] contaminated sites, local authorities should consider testing to ensure that PFAS levels are safe in local produce. This would help determine if local health advisories and publication campaigns to discourage regular consumption of wild fish, shellfish, free range eggs … are needed,” he added.

Halsall said: “PFAS in groundwater is a big problem because if that groundwater is abstracted for farming, or more importantly for humans as a water source, then you’ve got PFAS in your drinking water and it’s very difficult to remove.”

The map shows that drinking water sources in the UK are contaminated with PFAS, but water companies say that the chemicals don’t end up in the final tap water because they would either be mixed with water from another source to reduce the concentration of PFAS or removed through a special treatment process.

The Guardian and Watershed obtained information from water companies and the Environment Agency that shows that around 120 samples of drinking water sources have been found to have concentrations of PFOS or PFOA above the 100ng/l level since 2006. This is the level at which the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) recommends that water companies reduce the concentration before supplying it to people’s homes. The DWI guideline limit was much higher, at 3,000ng/l, prior to 2009.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has established health advisory limits of 0.004ng/l for PFOA and 0.02ng/l for PFOS for PFAS in drinking water. The Environmental Protection Agency of Denmark mandates that the total concentration of four PFASs in drinking water must not exceed 2ng/l.

According to Rita Loch-Caruso, a toxicology professor at the University of Michigan, “in response to growing evidence about their health impacts,” drinking water limits for PFAS continue to be reduced. She stated, “We’re finding health effects at lower and lower concentrations – in the single digits.”

According to Roger Klein, a PFAS expert and chemist, the UK’s “DWI limits are ridiculously high by current international standards.”

He also believes the practice of blending water to dilute the PFAS is wrong. “It is the lazy way out and it doesn’t remove the PFAS, which remains a problem since [they are] highly persistent and bioaccumulative.”

A Defra spokesperson said the UK had “very high standards” for drinking water and that water companies were “required to carry out regular risk assessments and sampling for PFAS to ensure the drinking water supply remains safe.

“PFAS chemicals are in the environment because they have been used widely in products and are extremely persistent. Since the 2000s we have taken action to increase monitoring and support a ban or highly restricting specific PFAS both domestically and internationally,” they said, adding that the department would continue to work with regulators to understand the risks.

The map shows a lot of detections, but it’s only thought to be the tip of the iceberg. The Environment Agency has acknowledged that PFOS, which is known to be harmful to fish and other aquatic life, can be found everywhere in the environment. Because of this, many rivers won’t meet water quality standards until 2039.

Only PFOS and PFOA are regulated in the UK. Instead of trying to deal with each substance separately, there is a proposal to regulate PFASs as a class in the EU. According to the European Chemicals Agency, unless something is done, approximately 4.4 million tonnes of PFAS will end up in the environment over the next thirty years.

The Fluoropolymers Product Group (FPG) opposes the EU’s efforts to treat all PFAS as a single class and advocates distinguishing fluoropolymers from other PFAS groups and taking into account the various risk profiles and applications of each group separately. “While the FPG understands the concerns related to the potential persistency of most of PFAS, we consider that this concern for the environment can be managed through alternative restrictions rather than a ban,” said Nicolas Robin, director of the FPG.

“[PFAS pollution] is similar to plastic pollution in that these chemicals are not degradable, [but] in the case of PFAS it is invisible,” said Cousins. “We continuously release them, so the levels in the environment will continue to increase and it’s only a matter of time before the levels of PFAS in the environment or in our bodies pass the threshold where there will be an effect on human health,” he said.



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