PFAS are found everywhere in our environment. Their durability makes them ideal materials for a number of consumer products, but it also means they do not biodegrade, and therefore accumulate in our environment and our bodies. In Europe, work is underway to ban PFAS completely, but meanwhile, PFAS contaminate our drinking water.
What was considered a wonderful invention in the middle of the last century has now become an environmental disaster: PFAS. PFAS (poly and per-fluoroalkyl substances) is a collective term for man-made chemical compounds, of which there are now almost 5000 varieties.
PFAS are resistant to dirt, water and grease, which makes them useful for many consumer products, such as lubricants, food packaging, non-stick coatings, fire extinguishing foam, water-resistant textiles and cosmetics. This durability comes at a cost. They are not called “forever chemicals” for nothing. PFAS do not biodegrade, and as a result they accumulate in the environment, plants, animals, and water sources. They end up in our blood and have a negative impact on our health.
The four main sources of PFAS are fire fighting training sites, industrial sites, landfills and wastewater treatment plants. PFAS end up in the environment at sites where they are made, used, disposed of or spilled. They are then transported through rainwater run-off into surface water (rivers, streams, lakes), and seep into the soil down to groundwater sources from which our drinking water is extracted.
Since the 1950’s, hundreds of studies have shown just how damaging PFAS can be. In addition to various cancers and liver complications, PFAS have been linked to impaired immune function, increased cholesterol and reproductive health problems.
The fact that PFAS are harmful to health became apparent shortly after their invention in the United States. In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers demonstrated their toxicity to fish and rats. In the late 1980s, workers at a DuPont chemical plant were found to have an above-average risk of leukaemia and liver cancer. Around the factory, many people became ill because of polluted drinking water. This so-called ‘Parkerson scandal’ was narrated in the film Dark Waters, which exposes DuPont’s careless practices.
Today, research is still being carried out into the effects of PFAS on our health. A recent report from the United States’ Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that ingesting small amounts of PFAS over a long period negatively impacts the immune system.
PFAS are not mentioned in the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) latest edition of their Drinking Water Guidelines. However, they are being considered for the next version. The WHO has suggested the following provisional guideline values (pGV):
The latest EU Drinking Water Directive poses the following limits:
These guidelines are currently being reviewed. The latest directive states that “By 12 January 2024, the Commission shall establish technical guidelines regarding methods of analysis for monitoring of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances under the parameters ‘PFAS Total’ and ‘Sum of PFAS’, including detection limits, parametric values and frequency of sampling.”
These guidelines are in urgent need of revision, especially when the values are compared to the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) stance on PFAS.
After scientific evaluation of the risks to human health, the EFSA set a tolerable weekly intake of 4.4 nanograms per kilogram of bodyweight.
For an average adult weighing 70kg, that’s around 42 nanograms per day, or 0,042 micrograms. If a litre of tap water can contain between 0,1 and 0,5 micrograms of PFAS, then it seems inevitable that we would be ingesting more PFAS than is considered “healthy”.
The Netherlands has seen several PFAS scandals. In 2008, there was an incident at Schiphol, where fire fighting foam containing PFAS leaked into the soil and groundwater. In 2015, an investigation was launched into pollution at the Chemours factory in Dordrecht. It found that mothers living near the factory passed PFAS to their infants through breast milk. The area was so polluted, people living near the factory were told they should not even eat the vegetables they grew in their garden. In Western Scheldt, high levels of PFAS were caused by the 3M factory near Antwerp and waste processing company Invader, which discharged PFAS waste into the water.
According to research by the RIVM, most PFAS come from food (about 83 to 98 percent of the total) with the rest coming from drinking water. As a result, the RIVM has advised the government to put policies in place that reduce exposure to PFAS. So far, these calls remain unanswered.
Waternet, a Dutch water company, is setting up a PFAS measurement program and is looking at ways to remove PFAS from the water. It currently uses activated carbon for this purpose, which, according to a study by the Dutch Bureau for Water Management (Rijkswaterstaat), removes PFAS almost completely from polluted water under intensive use and under ideal conditions.
Both the Dutch Union of Water Boards (UvW) and the Association of Drinking Water Companies (Vewin) are concerned about the amount of PFAS in the environment and have sounded the alarm. While the UvW is in favour of a source approach, Vewin is arguing for a total ban on the production of PFAS.
The Netherlands is working with a number of EU Member States on a European ban on all PFAS. Although a ban will help prevent a new spread of the substances, the existing PFAS will remain in the environment for years to come. In the meantime, both RIVM and Waternet maintain that the drinking water is healthy.
But the problem of PFAS contamination is bigger than the Netherlands.
In a number of areas in France, drinking water contains higher levels of PFAS than what is prescribed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
The Report on the occurrence of PFAS in water destined for human consumption found up to 156 nanograms of PFAS in some water samples. Some samples measured up to 12 nanograms of PFOA per litre, and 22 nanograms of PFOS per litre.
In France, too many PFAS are consumed. According to an investigation by Santé Publique France, 90% of the PFAS the population is exposed to comes from food (particularly fish, meat, deli meats and processed foods) and drinking water. The rest comes from using materials containing PFAS during leisure activities or DIY.
PFAS accumulate in the environment but also in the body. For a long time there were no studies to estimate how the French population was affected. Since 2011, several studies have been carried out. The most recent, carried out by the National Biosurveillance Program between 2014 and 2016, found 17 types of PFAS in the blood of 249 children between 6-17 years old, and 744 adults between 18-74 years old. The most prevalent were PFOA and PFOS.
For years, over 350,000 people drank water contaminated with PFAS, without knowing it. The pollution came from the Miteni factory in Trissino, a chemical company, since bankrupt, situated near a groundwater source that fed 21 communities in the provinces of Vicenza, Verona and Padova.
The pollution had been going on since the late 60’s, but the first news emerged in Veneto only in 2013, when the Italian National Research Council published its report on the state of the major river basins and found high levels of chemical contamination.
The scale of the issue emerged in 2016, when mass screening showed that contamination had gone far beyond the polluted zones; blood analyses revealed very high levels of PFAS.
The Health Monitoring Plan on population exposed to PFAS shows that many people have high blood levels of PFAS, especially the four commonly measured PFAS: perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA) and perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS)
Percentage of children under 14 with blood levels above the EU limit of 5 nanograms per millilitre of blood (ng/ml):
Percentage of people over 14 years old with blood levels above the EU limit of 5 ng/ml:
In 2013, the Italian National Institute of Health stated there was no immediate risk for people exposed to PFAS, but as a precautionary measure recommended the adoption of measures to reduce these substances in drinking water, as well as measures to better control drinking water sources in the most at-risk areas. Some of the measures included the use of active charcoal filters to reduce PFAS and improve the quality of drinking water.
Over the years there have been several incidents of PFAS contamination in Germany. In March 2022, for example, a lawsuit was filed before the Baden-Baden district court: the public utility company accused a compost manufacturer from Bühl of having spread compost mixed with paper sludge on fields as fertiliser. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper wrote: “The PFAS scandal in Central Baden is the biggest environmental scandal in the republic. Between 2006 and 2008, 1188 hectares of arable land between Baden-Baden and Rastatt were contaminated with perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS/PFC).” The once valuable drinking water reservoir suffered severe damage.
There is currently no uniform, area-wide monitoring of PFAS at groundwater measuring points in Germany. In 15 federal states, PFAS are currently being monitored on a case-by-case basis. Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia carry out comprehensive checks. Bavaria published its latest figures in September 2022: 114 cases of PFAS contamination were identified.
The EU’s work on controlling PFAS is underway with its much anticipated REACH proposal (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals).
However, the UK is doing things differently. If the “Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill 2022-2023” is passed, all EU laws would be revoked on 31st December 2023. In their place, British lawmakers would create their own regulations on PFAS chemicals. There is a question mark over how this legislation will be managed given the huge data gaps faced by the UK without access to the ECHA’s (European Chemicals Agency) database.
The UK’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Scottish and Welsh governments have launched the UK REACH program, which has two main activities:
According the the UK government website, the top priority for the UK REACH programme for 2022-2023 is to act on the recommendations of an RMOA report on PFAS. This report was due for publication in the summer of 2022, but at the time of writing (February 2023), it has not yet appeared.
The UK currently only regulates 2 PFAS chemicals, even though more than 5000 are currently used: PFOA and PFOS. These two substances are frequently detected in drinking water. In fact the UK’s Environmental Agency has found PFOA and PFOS in 96% of water samples. According to the charity PFAS-Free, this means that 100% of England’s rivers fail the Water Framework Directive’s assessment of “good chemical status”.
A recent report produced for Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency found that surface water around Dublin Fire Brigade Training Centre and Shannon Airport is heavily contaminated with PFAS.
The waters flowing into Dublin Bay from the Dublin Fire Brigade Training Centre were found to contain 93,7 nanograms per litre of PFOS, which is 144 times over the European Environmental Quality Standard limit value of 0,65 ng/l. [ref: and]
VOICE, a charity that campaigns on environmental issues in Ireland has been calling for an immediate ban of PFAS and wants Ireland to join Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, who are calling for a complete ban on these chemicals. As yet, the only result of the campaign has been that Restaurant Brands International, which includes fast food firms like Burger King, have announced they will phase out PFAS in their food packaging by 2025.
In the United States, almost 3000 PFAS-contaminated sites, or hot spots, have been found. As a result, the Biden administration has allocated 10 billion USD to tackle PFAS pollution. A clear nod to the fact the problem is huge, and needs to be addressed urgently.
The US Health and Environment Agency (EPA) has now recommended a new lower limit for two PFAS substances: no more than 0,004 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFOA and no more than 0,02 ppt PFOS per litre of water. For reference, 1 ppt is 1000000 micrograms. But there are question marks around whether these limits are even attainable. A recent study by Stockholm University shows that the amount of PFAS in rainwater is already above EPA recommendations all over the world. It’s literally raining PFAS, even in Antarctica.
In China, a study by Tsinghua University found that drinking water for around 100 million people across the country had unsafe levels of PFAS.
In Europe, a biomonitoring study found that 14% of blood samples from teenagers across nine European countries had levels of PFAS exceeding the EFSA’s guidelines (6,9 micrograms per litre of blood). The highest levels came from Sweden, where teenagers had an average of 12,31 micrograms of PFAS per litre.
On 13th January 2023, The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway officially submitted their proposal to restrict the use of PFAS in Europe to the ECHA. The proposal seeks a ban on both the use and production of these chemicals in order to reduce the risk to the environment and human health.
On the 7th February, the ECHA published details of this proposal on its website. Its committees for Risk Assessment (RAC) and Socio-Economic Analysis (SEAC) will review the legality of the proposal in March 2023 then begin scientific evaluation. A six month consultation will then begin, before the proposal is sent to the European Commission.
There is still a long way to go. According to the RIVM’s timeline for the ban of PFAS, a decision won’t be reached until 2025.
For the time being, it is difficult to remove PFAS from the environment. RIVM Drinking water researcher Monique van der Aa explains: “You can only remove the vast majority of PFAS from the water with membrane purification, such as reverse osmosis. But that is an expensive technique that consumes a lot of energy. Few drinking water companies therefore use membrane technology.”
The other problem is that monitoring is limited to a handful of PFAS, when over 5000 are currently in use. This means that there are probably many more toxic substances in water, but these are not taken into account.
If you want to make sure you’re not drinking water containing PFAS, it’s time to use a water filter with proven technology to eliminate these substances.
1938 – Invention of PFAS in New Jersey, United States.
1947- Chemical group 3M starts mass production of C8 or PFOA, one of the best known of the thousands of possible per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals of the PFAS family.
1954 – First rumours about the possible toxicity of PFOA and other PFAS.
1959 – DuPont opens a branch in Dordrecht.
1961 – DuPont’s resident toxicologist states in an internal document that PFAS chemicals are harmful and must be handled with extreme caution.
1998 – Wilbur Tennant of Parkersburg, United States, starts a lawsuit against DuPont: his cattle die with strange symptoms. Two decades later, the case results in a multimillion-dollar settlement to thousands of injured parties.
2000 – The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announces a worldwide cancer alert for PFOS after reviewing 3M documents. Pressured by pending lawsuits and the EPA, 3M announces it will “spontaneously” phase out production of PFOS and PFOA. New PFAS variants, whose toxicity has not yet been proven, are developed.
2001 – Professors Giesy and Kannan report for the first time on the global distribution of PFOS in the environment.
2004 – The University of Antwerp discovers unprecedented PFOS concentrations in mice, birds and fish from the vicinity of the 3M site in Zwijndrecht.
2006 – The EPA forces eight manufacturers in the PFAS industry through the PFOA Stewardship Program to restrict the use of PFOA in the United States.
2008 – EFSA states that small amounts of PFAS are unlikely to be harmful to humans.
2017 – RIVM: blood levels of PFOA in the average European is 3.5 nanograms per millilitre.
2019 – Release of the film Dark Waters, based on the lengthy legal battle that attorney Robert Bilott waged in the Tennant case against DuPont in the late 1990s.
2019 -The United Nations’ Stockholm Convention Persistent organic Pollutants Review Committee recommends that a group of hazardous chemicals, including PFAS, be eliminated to better protect human health and the environment.
2020 – After research, EFSA comes up with a proposal for a new standard: 4.4 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per week.
2022 – EPA issues interim updated drinking water guidelines from PFOS and PFOA, lowering from 70 ng/l for both to 0,02 ng/l for PFOS and 0,0004 ng/l for PFOA.
2023 – EU considers a proposal to ban PFAS