In the UK, only two of thousands of PFAS are regulated; while the EU is already contemplating stricter standards.
The “forever chemicals” known as PFAS are ubiquitous, do not degrade in the environment, can accumulate in the body, and can be toxic. The problem is becoming more widely recognised, but progress has been slow so far.
There are thousands of PFAS, but only two are regulated in the UK—PFOS and PFOA—and the country risks falling behind the EU, which is working to control the substances.
The European Synthetic compounds Organisation is thinking about a proposition by Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden to confine the production and utilisation of around 10,000 PFAS with an end goal to direct them as a class, decrease emanations and make items more secure.
Additionally, the EU is contemplating new, more stringent standards for the acceptable levels of PFAS in rivers. Only PFOS has an environmental quality standard for rivers in the UK at a concentration of 36,000ng/l and an annual average of 0.65 nanograms per litre.
The EU standard that has been proposed goes much further than this, calling for a level of 4.4ng/l of PFOA equivalents for the total of 24 PFAS. Relative potency factors, which multiply or divide concentration values based on how potent a PFAS is in comparison to PFOA, are used to calculate the sum.
Judged against them, many of England’s rivers would fail.
At least 81 of the 105 English river sites where PFAS had been discovered would not meet the standard, with 44 exceeding the level by more than five times, according to an analysis conducted by the Rivers Trust for the Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) nature coalition.
According to the analysis, some river sites, including the River Roding in east London and the River Ouse in Bedfordshire, the River Avon in Somerset, and the River Mersey in Cheshire, have at least 10 times the proposed new safe level of PFAS from the EU.
Richard Benwell, the chief executive of WCL, said: “Our research on English rivers found toxic chemical concentrations at levels that will soon be deemed unsafe across the rest of Europe.
“Without swift action, the UK could fall behind on protecting the public and nature from pollutants like hormone-disrupting PFAS chemicals, which can build up in our rivers for thousands of years.”
He added that the government’s forthcoming chemicals strategy and PFAS regulations were a chance to take a lead. “The government should ban unnecessary PFAS use, tackle similar chemicals as a group, and set safety standards that account for the growing risks of chemical cocktail effects.”
WCL is concerned that official monitoring data only covers a small number of PFAS chemicals and that not all rivers are tested, indicating that pollution levels could be significantly higher.
Rob Collins, director of policy and science at the Rivers Trust, said more resource was needed for monitoring. “We urgently need government to take action to markedly reduce the release of PFAS to the environment if we are to avoid a worsening toxic legacy for our rivers,” he said.
In addition to posing a threat to wildlife, PFAS pollution in rivers also has the potential to harm human health.
“Fish can bioaccumulate PFAS and if people are eating that fish, then people could become ill,” said Cecilia MacLeod, programme lead for wastewater and environmental engineering at the University of Greenwich. “And if those fish are being ingested by birds, by water mammals, then you could be impacting a much wider biome.”
The EU’s proposals to ban all 10,000 PFAS as a class are being resisted by industry. “Fluoropolymers are needed to meet the EU’s priority objectives in terms of the green transition and digitalisation,” said Nicolas Robin, the director of the Fluoropolymer Product Group. He believes it is not acceptable to group all PFAS together, saying fluoropolymers are different toxicologically.
“There are different PFAS,” said Linda Birnbaum, a toxicologist and former director of the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, “but every single one is never going to go away from the environment”.
According to Birnbaum, it could take the same amount of time to research the other two PFAS as it did to gather enough data on PFOS and PFOA to pass regulation. Using this method, “we’re never going to get to 12,000”, she said. “We’ve been regulating groups of chemicals for years … that is the pragmatic approach.”
Although it is costly and generates its own waste, improved technology at wastewater treatment plants can reduce pollution in rivers and drinking water. “Granular activated carbon is effective for removal of PFAS like PFOA and PFOS, but other … PFAS are less efficiently removed,” said Rita Loch-Caruso, a professor of toxicology at the University of Michigan.
“It is only now that we are starting to realise just how much damage we have done,” said David Megson, forensic environmental scientist at Manchester Metropolitan University. “Water companies are going to have to be more vigilant than ever to ensure drinking water is fit for our consumption, and this will require more testing and additional resources. To me it seems unfair that they and the consumers should pay the costs for this when neither are responsible for the pollution.”
Despite the challenge ahead, Ian Cousins, an environmental scientist at Stockholm University, is optimistic. “I think there’s a hopeful message globally, there’s a lot of change on the way,” he said. “You have this restriction proposal in the EU. There’s also a lot of progressive companies, like Apple, which has now committed to the phaseout of PFAS. Even some PFAS manufacturers are moving in the right direction.”
A government spokesperson said: “We are working at pace across government to assess the levels of PFAS occurring in the environment. We will shortly publish further analysis of the risks of PFAS which will also make recommendations to inform future policy – with further details on our approach to be announced later this year.
“We will also establish an expert advisory board who will consider a range of international research to help us ensure our drinking water standards and regulations continue to be based on the latest evidence.
“Since the 2000s we have taken action to increase the monitoring of PFAS, including initiating the environmental monitoring for PFOS and PFOA and later expanding this to include a wider range of PFAS. We have also taken actions to support a ban or highly restrict specific PFAS both domestically and internationally.”
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