“Forever chemicals” in rainwater exceed safe levels

“Forever chemicals” in rainwater exceed safe levels


PFAS have been found in the rain in Tibet

New research shows that rainwater in most places on earth contains chemicals that “far exceed” safe levels.

These synthetic substances, called PFAS, are used in non-stick pans, fire-fighting foam, and waterproof clothing.

They are called “forever chemicals” and remain in the environment for years.

Their prevalence is now so widespread that scientists say there is no safe space on Earth to avoid them.

Stockholm University researchers say it is “vital” that the use of these substances is curtailed quickly.

Scientists worry that PFAS could pose health risks including cancer, although research has so far been inconclusive. They have become increasingly concerned about the spread of PFAS in recent years.

PFAS stands for poly and perfluoroalkyl substances.

There are around 4,500 of these fluorine-based compounds and they can be found in almost every home on earth in hundreds of everyday products, including food packaging, non-stick cookware, rainwear, glue, paper and paint.


Fire-fighting foams often contain PFAS chemicals

Safety concerns have also been raised about the presence of these persistent substances in drinking water.

Earlier this year, a BBC investigation found PFAS in water samples in England at levels exceeding European safety levels but not exceeding current safety levels in England and Wales.

This new study, looking at four specific chemicals in the class, suggests that levels of a PFAS in rainwater around the world often “far exceed” US recommended levels for drinking water.

Soil around the world is similarly contaminated, evidence suggests.

The study’s findings lead the authors to conclude that a planetary boundary has been crossed – that there simply is no safe space on Earth to avoid these substances.

“We argue here that we are no longer in this safe operating area because we now have these chemicals everywhere and we can no longer comply with these safety instructions,” said Prof Ian Cousins, the lead author from Stockholm University.

“I’m not saying we’re all going to die from these effects. But we are now in a place where you cannot live anywhere in the world and be assured that the environment is safe.”

While this is undoubtedly a concern, there are some caveats.

Many of these security levels are advisory in nature, meaning they are not legally enforceable.

Other scientists believe that action against these chemicals should wait until the health risks are more clearly established.

Much research has been done on the health risks of PFAS, and scientists say exposure to high levels may be linked to an increased risk of some cancers, fertility problems and developmental delays in children.

However, such associations do not prove cause and effect, and other studies have found no association between PFAS and disease.

But for those who have worked closely with PFAS for years, the evidence in the new research underscores the need for a precautionary approach.

“With this background rain, the values ​​are already higher than these environmental quality criteria. This means that over time we will have a statistically significant impact on human health from these chemicals,” said Prof Crispin Halsall of the University of Lancaster. He was not involved in the Swedish study.

“And how will that manifest itself? I’m not sure, but it will become clear over time because we are exceeding the levels that will cause some harm from human exposure in their drinking water.”

Removing the chemicals in the study from drinking water at sewage treatment plants is possible, albeit expensive.


Rainwater around the world exceeds US safety guidelines, scientists say

However, according to the authors, breaking below the US advisory level is extremely difficult.

As scientists have gained more knowledge about PFAS over the past 20 years, the safety warnings have been steadily lowered.

This has also happened with regard to the presence of these chemicals in the soil – and this also causes problems.

In the Netherlands, in 2018 the Ministry of Infrastructure set new limit values ​​for the concentration of PFAS in soil and dredged material.

However, this meant that 70% of the construction projects with soil removal or excavation were stopped. After protests, the government relaxed the guidelines.

According to the new study, such relaxation of safety levels is also likely to be the case for water contamination.

“If you applied these guidelines everywhere, you wouldn’t be able to build anywhere,” said Prof Ian Cousins.

“I think they will do the same with the US drinking water recommendations because they are not practical to apply.

“It’s not because there’s anything wrong with the risk assessment. It’s just that you can’t apply those things. From an economic point of view, it is simply impossible to apply any of these guidelines.”


A construction site in the Netherlands – many projects in the country had to be stopped due to restrictions on PFAS

The biggest challenge with these chemicals is their persistence, not their toxicity, the study authors say.

While some harmful PFAS were phased out by manufacturers two decades ago, they remain in water, air and soil.

One way PFAS circulate through the environment is as tiny particles that are carried into the air in sea spray and then back to land.

This inability to be broken down in the environment means that PFAS are now found even in remote areas of Antarctica, Prof. Halsall recently reported.

While there are moves at European level to limit the use of these chemicals and find more harmless substitutes, there are also hopes that industry will quickly phase out the use of PFAS.

“We need persistent chemicals and substances, we want our products to last while we use them,” said Prof Cousins.

“And while there are conservative voices in the industry, there are also progressive players. I feel very optimistic when I see these advanced industries working together.”

The research results were published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Follow Matthias on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

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