Rainwater all over the world contains cancer-causing chemicals “forever,” a study finds

Rainwater all over the world contains cancer-causing chemicals “forever,” a study finds

PFAS have been linked to health problems such as cancer, learning and behavioral problems in children, and infertility (Getty/iStock)

PFAS have been linked to health problems such as cancer, learning and behavioral problems in children, and infertility (Getty/iStock)

Even in the most remote parts of the world, levels of so-called “forever chemicals” in the atmosphere have gotten so high that rainwater is now “undrinkable” according to newly released water quality guidelines.

Forever Chemicals are a group of man-made hazardous products known as PFAS, which stands for perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances, some of which have been linked to human cancer.

They have spread across watercourses, oceans, soils and the atmosphere around the world over the last few decades, and as a result can now be found in rainwater and snow in even the most remote places on earth – from Antarctica to the Tibetan Plateau, researchers have found said.

Guideline values ​​for PFAS in drinking water, surface water and soil have been drastically revised downwards due to a better understanding of their toxicity and the dangers they pose to health and nature.

The changes mean that levels of these chemicals in rainwater “are now ubiquitously above guideline levels,” according to researchers from Stockholm University and ETH Zurich.

“Over the last 20 years there has been an astounding decrease in guideline values ​​for PFAS in drinking water,” said Ian Cousins, the study’s lead author and professor at Stockholm University’s Faculty of Environmental Sciences.

“For example, the drinking water guideline value for a well-known substance from the PFAS class, namely the carcinogenic perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), has fallen by 37.5 million times in the USA.”

He added, “Based on the latest US guidelines for PFOA in drinking water, rainwater would be classified as non-potable anywhere.”

“Although we don’t often drink rainwater in the industrial world, many people around the world expect it to be safe and it powers many of our drinking water sources,” Professor Cousins ​​said.

To investigate the prevalence of these chemicals, the Stockholm University team has been conducting laboratory and field studies on the atmospheric presence and transport of PFAS for the past decade.

They found that levels of some harmful PFAS in the atmosphere have not decreased appreciably, despite their phase-out by major manufacturer 3M two decades ago.

PFAS are known to be very long-lived – hence known as “forever chemicals” – but their continued presence in the atmosphere is also due to their properties and natural processes that continually recycle PFAS from the surface environment into the atmosphere.

An important route by which PFAS continuously enter the atmosphere is through sea spray aerosol transport from seawater to sea air, which is another active area of ​​research for the Stockholm University team.

“The extreme persistence and continuous global cycle of certain PFAS are leading to a sustained transgression of the [water quality] guidelines,” said Professor Martin Scheringer, co-author of the study and based at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and Masaryk University in the Czech Republic.”

“Due to the global proliferation of PFAS, environmental media everywhere will now exceed environmental quality guidelines to protect human health, and there is very little we can do to reduce PFAS contamination.”

“In other words, it makes sense to define a planetary boundary specifically for PFAS, and as we conclude in the paper, that boundary has now been crossed,” he added.

The research team found that PFAS have been linked to a variety of serious health problems, including cancer, learning and behavioral problems in children, infertility and pregnancy complications, high cholesterol and immune system problems.

dr Jane Muncke, executive director of the Food Packaging Forum Foundation in Zurich, who was not involved in the research, said: “It cannot be that a few benefit economically while polluting the drinking water of millions of others and causing serious health problems. “

The huge cost it will cost to reduce PFAS in drinking water to levels that are safe according to current scientific understanding will have to be borne by the industries that make and use these toxic chemicals. The time to act is now.”

The research will be published as a perspective article in the journal environmental science and technology.

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