“Forever Chemicals” Found in 17,000 sites in the United Kingdom and Europe

Editorial TeamEditorial Team
February 27th, 2023

PFA chemicals present in teflon and associated with cancer risks, have been found in high concentrations throughout Europe.

Pollutants known as "forever chemicals," which do not break down in the environment, accumulate in the body, and can be toxic, have been found in high concentrations at thousands of sites in the United Kingdom and Europe, an extensive mapping project has found.

About 10,000 chemicals valued for their non-stick and cleaning properties have entered water, soils, and sediments through various consumer products, firefighting foams, wastes, and industrial processes.

Two PFASs have been linked to a number of health problems. PFOA has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, and pregnancy-related hypertension. PFOS has been associated with reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, and thyroid diseases. At lower concentrations, PFAS have been associated with immunotoxicity.

The substances have been found at approximately 17,000 sites in the United Kingdom and Europe. PFASs were detected at high concentrations of more than 1,000 nanograms per liter of water at about 640 sites and more than 10,000ng/l at 300 locations. As a result, there are s a risk of livestock entering these waters and PFASs entering the human food web. Pollution is highest in Belgium. Near 3M's PFAS production site in Zwijndrecht (Flanders), PFAS have been found in groundwater at concentrations of up to 73 million ng/l.



What Are the Consequences?

Residents within 15 km (10 miles) of the site were told not to eat eggs laid in their gardens and to avoid homegrown vegetables. Meanwhile, 70,000 people living within 5 km of the plant were offered a blood test to determine the presence of PFAS.

In the Netherlands, an accident involving PFAS in firefighting foam contaminated the soils around Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, resulting in extremely high levels of PFOS in the soil. Similar problems have been found at some airports and military sites in Germany.

In the United Kingdom, the highest PFAS concentrations were found in an effluent from a chemical plant on the River Wyre above Blackpool. High levels of PFASs were found in fish from the river, with flounder containing up to 11,000ng/kg, according to the Defra Center for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science.

Data obtained by the Guardian and Watershed from water companies and The Environment Agency show that since 2006, PFOS or PFOA concentrations above 100ng/l have been found in around 120 samples of drinking water sources - the point at which Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) guidelines state that water companies should take action to reduce levels before releasing water to households. Until 2009, the DWI limit was much higher at 3,000ng/l.

In the U.S., limits for PFAS in drinking water are much lower. There, the Environmental Protection Agency has set a health-based guideline of 0.004ng/l for PFOA and 0.02ng/l for PFOS. In Denmark, the Environmental Protection Agency stipulates that drinking water must not contain more than 2ng/l for the sum of the four PFAS. According to Rita Loch-Caruso, professor of toxicology at the College of Michigan, limits for PFAS in drinking water are being lowered as evidence of their health effects mount.



Regulating PFAS

Despite the high level of pollution revealed by the map, it’s believed that this is only the tip of the iceberg. The Environmental Protection Agency has admitted that PFOS - which is known to be toxic to fish and other aquatic life - is ubiquitous in the environment and that the presence of PFOS in rivers means that many rivers will not meet water quality standards by 2039.

In the UK, only PFOS and PFOA are regulated. In the EU, there is a proposal to regulate PFAS as a class rather than trying to address each substance individually. According to the European Chemicals Agency, about 4.4 million tons of PFAS will be released into the environment over the next 30 years if no action is taken.

The Fluoropolymers Product Group (FPG) opposes the EU's efforts to treat all PFAS as one class, arguing instead that a distinction should be made between fluoropolymers and other PFAS groups, and that the different risk profiles and uses of each group should be considered separately. According to Nicolas Robin, Director of the FPG, the company understands the concerns about the potential persistence of most PFASs, it believes that this environmental concern can be addressed through alternative restrictions rather than a ban.