Major mapping projects have revealed high levels of PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” at nearly 17,000 sites in the UK and Europe, especially in rivers.
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Forever chemicals or PFAS are pollutants that do not break down in the environment and tend to build up inside the body.
A few days ago PFAS were found in over 330 species of animals contaminating the wildlife. These pollutants have been found at around 17,000 sites across the UK and Europe. Of these sites, PFAS was found at noticeably high concentrations at about 640 sites with more than 1,000 nanograms per liter of water, and nearly 10,000 nanograms per liter at about 300 sites.
According to professor Crispin Halsall, an environmental chemist at Lancaster University, such high concentrations raise a huge concern as PFAS can enter the human food web if livestock gain access to contaminated water. People who access wildlife for food, such as wildfowl and fishing, are also at risk.
Mapping Project Findings
The map shows that the country with the highest pollution levels was Belgium. Here, the PFAS was found at a concentration of up to 73 mg/L in groundwater in the vicinity of 3M, a PFAS manufacturing site in Zwijndrecht, Flanders.
People within a radius of 15 kilometers (10 miles) have been asked to avoid the consumption of home-grown vegetables and eggs that were laid in their gardens. Furthermore, to look for the presence of PFAS in the body, 70,000 people living in a radius of 5 km (3 miles) have been offered blood tests.
3M has signed an agreement to remediate the site and plans to exit the manufacturing of PFAS by the end of 2025.
In Amsterdam, the land around Schiphol airport has been contaminated due to an accident involving the presence of PFAS in the firefighting foam. This has resulted in the contamination of soils with excessively high levels of PFAS.
Many military sites and airports have detected similar problems, as in the Netherlands.
Due to discharge from a chemical plant, the river Wyre, above Blackpool, was found to have the highest amount of PFAS. According to data by Defra’s Center for Environment, Fisheries, and Aquaculture, it was found that the fish in the river had high levels of PFAS, with up to 11,000 ng/kg in flounder.
PFAS stands for per-and polyflouroalkyl substances. This is a family of nearly 10,000 chemicals used for their non-stick and detergent properties. These are used in firefighting foams, and industrial and waste processes.
Connection with Health Problems
PFAS is linked to immunotoxicity when found at lower levels. Specifically, two PFAS have been linked to various health problems.
- PFOA has been associated with testicular and kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and high cholesterol.
- PFOS is linked to developmental, reproductive, thyroid, and kidney diseases.
Threats and Precautionary Measures
According to an environmental scientist at Stockholm University, Professor Ian Cousins environmental sites with readings higher than 1,000 ng/kg should be assessed urgently so that their remediation can be done. Furthermore, he added that to help determine if the local health advisories and public campaigns need to ask people to stop the consumption of shellfish, wild fish, free-range eggs, and more such food items, the local authority should consider conducting tests to confirm safe PFAS levels in local produce.
The map has indicated the presence of PFAS in the UK’s drinking water sources. According to Halsall, the presence of PFAS in groundwater is a major threat as the pollutants can then enter the human body either as drinking water or if the groundwater is used for farming practices.
However, the water companies have stated that pollutants are not present in the final tap water. This is because the water is first blended with another source which dilutes PFAS, or the contaminated water might undergo a specific treatment process to remove PFAS.
Since the 2000s, there have been restrictions on several PFAS domestically and internationally, stated a Defra spokesperson.
Regardless of the findings of the map, the PFAS problem is considered just the tip of the iceberg. The Environment Agency has acknowledged that the presence of PFOS is toxic to fish and other aquatic life and the presence of PFOS in rivers will mean that until 2039 many will not meet the water quality standards.