The UK government is not testing drinking water for a group of toxic manmade chemicals linked to a range of diseases including cancers, while across the world people are falling sick and suing for hundreds of millions of dollars at a time after finding the substances in their tap water.
Known collectively as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), or “forever chemicals” because they are designed never to break down in the environment, the substances are used for their water- and grease-repellent properties in everything from cookware and clothing to furniture, carpets, packaging, coatings and firefighting foams.
When PFAS, of which there are thousands, enter the environment, they accumulate in soil, water, animals and human blood. Following a landmark legal case in the US made famous by the Mark Ruffalo film Dark Waters, a huge epidemiological study was carried out that linked PFAS to high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
Separate studies have made connections between PFAS and miscarriage, reduced birth weight, endocrine disruption, reduced sperm quality, delayed puberty, early menopause and reduced immune response to tetanus vaccination. Scientists have also found that the substances can be passed from mother to baby via the placenta and breast milk.
On top of multiple class actions in the US, cases are being brought around the world. In Australia, two towns adjacent to airbases using PFAS in firefighting foam have been warned not to drink their tap water, and in Italy industry is thought to have exposed 350,000 people to the toxic contaminant. It is estimated that almost everyone in the world now has PFAS in their blood.
In England, the Environment Agency says PFAS is “ubiquitous in the environment”, particularly in its waters, making it unlikely that drinking water sources have escaped contamination. But unlike countries such as the US, where a nationwide testing scheme is under way, the UK government has so far only made plans to make plans to understand the levels of drinking water pollution.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says it takes “the risks posed by PFAS chemicals very seriously, which is why we’re working at pace with regulators to better assess their presence in our natural environment and their sources.” It says it is “developing its approach to managing risk from PFAS” but it is not testing drinking water.
Water companies do not routinely test for PFAS either. Instead, they are expected to “consider” just two restricted PFAS – PFOS and PFOA – in their risk assessments. According to Defra, there “have been no notifications of an event associated with elevated levels of PFOS or PFOA since 2005”. In Scotland, only PFOA is risk-assessed.
Dr Ian Ross, the global PFAS practice lead at the consultancy Tetra Tech, says the huge number of potential PFAS sources – from airfields and industry to landfills and car washes – make risk assessment very difficult.
“Water companies may need to perform a detailed assessment of many catchments considering a multitude of PFAS sources before determining that water from each catchment is unlikely to supply PFAS-impacted water,” Ross said. “This is more concerning now a new, lower, 10 nanogram/litre limit from the drinking water inspectorate has been introduced, which triggers consultation with health professionals.”
The industry group WaterUK said: “Companies in risk areas have monitoring in place to support the removal of PFAS, and other potentially harmful substances, to ensure drinking water is clean and safe.”
Even so, the drinking water inspectorate has only set the 10ng/l limit for PFOS and PFOA, and there are no limits on the wider group of chemicals. In contrast, Denmark has a limit of 100ng/l for the total of 12 PFAS, with lower levels proposed for PFOS of 3ng/l; Sweden has set a 90ng/l for the sum of 11 PFAS; and Bavaria has regulated 13 individual PFAS to a range of limits between 0.1 micrograms (ug)/l and 10ug/l.
The EU recently revised its drinking water directive, reducing the acceptable level to 100ng/l for 20 types of PFAS and 500 ng/l for all PFAS substances. The directive entered into force in January and member states have two years to adopt it.
It is not clear whether the UK will follow suit. Defra has said it will “consider the effect of the changes made to the directive” but made no commitment to adopt it.
Dr Paul Johnston, from Greenpeace’s research laboratory at the University of Exeter, said: “We’re literally flying blind on this as a nation,” adding that the government had “had plenty of heads up on this from what has been going on in the US”.
He said: “It’s quite baffling why it hasn’t actually been done in a systematic way, if only to validate the risk assessments … you need to be able to back it up with real-world analysis.”
Dr Julie Schneider, of the chemicals charity Chem Trust, said: “People have the right to know if the water from their tap is contaminated with these harmful chemicals. We urgently need a full assessment of PFAS contamination in drinking water in the UK. Continuous exposure to PFAS may lead to long-term adverse health effects, and drinking water is recognised as one of the main sources of our exposure to PFAS.”
An outright ban on all non-essential uses of PFAS is under discussion among EU countries, but there are no signs that the UK intends to take the same tack. “Every year of delay in regulating these chemicals means an increasing level of exposure due to their extreme persistence and capacity to accumulate in the water and the wider environment,” said Schneider.
Responding to the use restrictions put in place on PFOS and PFOA, the industry has created replacement chemicals known as GenX, but researchers suggest these could be just as harmful to humans and the environment, and could be even harder to detect.