UK risks falling behind Europe in controlling ‘forever chemicals’

Only two of thousands of PFAS are regulated, while the EU is already contemplating stricter standards

PFAS “forever chemicals” are everywhere, they don’t break down in the environment, and they can build up in the body and can be toxic. The world is waking up to the issue but so far action has been slow.

There are thousands of PFAS but in the UK, just two – PFOS and PFOA – are regulated, and the country risks falling behind the EU, where plans to get a grip on the substances are under way.

The European Chemicals Agency is considering a proposal by Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden to restrict the manufacture and use of about 10,000 PFAS in an effort to regulate them as a class, reduce emissions and make products safer.

The EU is also contemplating stricter new standards on the levels of PFAS that are deemed safe in rivers. Currently an environmental quality standard for rivers is in place in the UK only for PFOS at an annual average of 0.65 nanograms/litre with a maximum allowable concentration of 36,000ng/l.

The proposed EU standard goes well beyond this, mooting a level of 4.4ng/l of PFOA equivalents for the sum of 24 PFAS. The sum is calculated using relative potency factors, which multiply or divide concentration values depending on how potent a PFAS is compared with PFOA.

Judged against them, many of England’s rivers would fail.

Analysis by the Rivers Trust for the Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) nature coalition found that at least 81 of 105 of English river sites where PFAS had been found would not meet the standard, with 44 exceeding the level by more than five times.

Some river sites, including on the River Ouse in Bedfordshire, the River Avon in Somerset and the River Mersey in Cheshire, have at least 10 times the EU’s proposed new safe level of PFAS, with the River Roding in east London having more than 20 times this amount, according to the analysis.

Richard Benwell, the chief executive of WCL, said: “Our research on English rivers found toxic chemical concentrations at levels that will soon be deemed unsafe across the rest of Europe.

“Without swift action, the UK could fall behind on protecting the public and nature from pollutants like hormone-disrupting PFAS chemicals, which can build up in our rivers for thousands of years.”

He added that the government’s forthcoming chemicals strategy and PFAS regulations were a chance to take a lead. “The government should ban unnecessary PFAS use, tackle similar chemicals as a group, and set safety standards that account for the growing risks of chemical cocktail effects.”

WCL is concerned that official monitoring data covers only a handful of PFAS chemicals and that not all rivers are tested, so pollution levels could be much worse.

Rob Collins, director of policy and science at the Rivers Trust, said more resource was needed for monitoring. “We urgently need government to take action to markedly reduce the release of PFAS to the environment if we are to avoid a worsening toxic legacy for our rivers,” he said.

PFAS pollution in rivers poses a threat not only to wildlife, but potentially to human health, too.

“Fish can bioaccumulate PFAS and if people are eating that fish, then people could become ill,” said Cecilia MacLeod, programme lead for wastewater and environmental engineering at the University of Greenwich. “And if those fish are being ingested by birds, by water mammals, then you could be impacting a much wider biome.”

Industry is pushing back against the EU’s proposals to ban all 10,000 PFAS as a class. “Fluoropolymers are needed to meet the EU’s priority objectives in terms of the green transition and digitalisation,” said Nicolas Robin, the director of the Fluoropolymer Product Group. He believes it is not acceptable to group all PFAS together, saying fluoropolymers are different toxicologically.

“There are different PFAS,” said Linda Birnbaum, a toxicologist and former director of the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, “but every single one is never going to go away from the environment”.

It took up to 40 years to gather enough data on PFOS and PFOA to pass regulation, and it could take a similar amount of time to research another two PFAS, Birnbaum said. Using this method, “we’re never going to get to 12,000”, she said. “We’ve been regulating groups of chemicals for years … that is the pragmatic approach.”

Improved technology at wastewater treatment works can reduce pollution in drinking water and rivers but is expensive and creates its own waste. “Granular activated carbon is effective for removal of PFAS like PFOA and PFOS, but other … PFAS are less efficiently removed,” said Rita Loch-Caruso, a professor of toxicology at the University of Michigan.

“It is only now that we are starting to realise just how much damage we have done,” said David Megson, forensic environmental scientist at Manchester Metropolitan University. “Water companies are going to have to be more vigilant than ever to ensure drinking water is fit for our consumption, and this will require more testing and additional resources. To me it seems unfair that they and the consumers should pay the costs for this when neither are responsible for the pollution.”

Despite the challenge ahead, Ian Cousins, an environmental scientist at Stockholm University, is optimistic. “I think there’s a hopeful message globally, there’s a lot of change on the way,” he said. “You have this restriction proposal in the EU. There’s also a lot of progressive companies, like Apple, which has now committed to the phaseout of PFAS. Even some PFAS manufacturers are moving in the right direction.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are working at pace across government to assess the levels of PFAS occurring in the environment. We will shortly publish further analysis of the risks of PFAS which will also make recommendations to inform future policy – with further details on our approach to be announced later this year.

“We will also establish an expert advisory board who will consider a range of international research to help us ensure our drinking water standards and regulations continue to be based on the latest evidence.

“Since the 2000s we have taken action to increase the monitoring of PFAS, including initiating the environmental monitoring for PFOS and PFOA and later expanding this to include a wider range of PFAS. We have also taken actions to support a ban or highly restrict specific PFAS both domestically and internationally.”


Rachel Salvidge and Leana Hosea

The GuardianTramp

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