Revealed: Extent of 'eternal chemical' pollution in UK and Europe (2023)

Pollutants, known as 'forever chemicals', which do not break down in the environment, accumulate in the body and can be toxic, have been found in elevated levels in thousands of locations across the United Kingdom and Great BritainEuropa, revealed a major mapping project.

The map shows that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a family of about 10,000 chemicals valued for their non-stick and cleaning properties, make their way into water, soil and sediment from a wide range of consumer products, fire-fighting foams, waste and industrial processes.

Two PFAS have been linked to a range of health problems. PFOA has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol and pregnancy-related high blood pressure. PFOS has been linked to reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney and thyroid diseases. At lower concentrations, PFAS was associated withimmunotoxicity.

The substances have been found in around 17,000 locations across the UK and Europe. Of these, PFAS were detected in high concentrations of over 1,000 nanograms per liter of water at around 640 sites and over 10,000 ng/l at 300 sites.

"These types of levels worry me," said Professor Crispin Halsall, an environmental chemist at Lancaster University. "They run the risk of farm animals having access to these waters and [that's how PFAS is] in the human food chain." Halsall says there are also risks when people "access wildlife as a food source, such as B. Fishing and wildfowl”.

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The map shows that Belgium has the highest levels of pollution, where PFAS has been found in groundwater in concentrations of up to 73 million ng/l around 3M's PFAS factory in Zwijndrecht, Flanders.

People living within 15 km (10 miles) of the site were told not to eat eggs laid in their gardens and to avoid homegrown vegetables. Meanwhile, 70,000 people living within a 5 km (3 miles) radius of the facility have had blood tests to check for the presence of PFAS. 3M says it will rehabilitate the site and has "signed an agreement with the Flemish Region... with an investment value of €571m" (£503m). It also announced plans to end PFAS manufacturing "and to work to phase out the use of PFAS across its product portfolio by the end of 2025."

Revealed: Extent of 'eternal chemical' pollution in UK and Europe (1)

In the Netherlands, an accident involving PFAS in fire-fighting foam contaminated the land around Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, resulting in soils with extremely high concentrations of PFAS. Some airports and military facilities in Germany faced similar problems.

In the UK, the highest levels of PFAS were found in the effluent from a chemical plant in the River Wyre above Blackpool. According to data from the Defra Center for the Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture, river fish have been found to contain high levels of PFAS, with flounder containing up to 11,000 ng/kg.

Professor Ian Cousins, an environmental scientist at Stockholm University, said sites with levels above 1,000 ng/kg should be "assessed urgently" so that they can be addressed.


“In [heavily] contaminated locations, local authorities should consider testing to ensure PFAS levels in local produce are safe. This would help determine if local health advice and publicity campaigns are needed to discourage regular consumption of wild fish, shellfish, free-range eggs..." he added.

Halsall said, "PFAS in groundwater is a big problem because if that groundwater is being abstracted for agriculture or more importantly for humans as a water source, then you have PFAS in your drinking water and it's very difficult to remove." .

The map shows UK drinking water sources have been contaminated with PFAS, but water companies say the chemicals don't end up in the final tap water because they would first be mixed with another source to dilute the PFAS or undergo a special treatment process to remove it.

Data from water companies and the Guardian and Watershed Environment Agency shows that since 2006, about 120 samples from drinking water sources contained concentrations of PFOS or PFOA above 100 ng/L - the point at which water Drinking Water Inspection (DWI) guidelines dictate that water companies take action need to reduce it before delivering it to households. Up until 2009, the DWI guideline limit was significantly higher at 3,000 ng/l.

Guideline levels for PFAS in drinking water are much lower in the US, where the Environmental Protection Agency has set a health limit of 0.004 ng/L for PFOA and 0.02 ng/L for PFOS. In Denmark, the Environmental Protection Agency stipulates that drinking water must not contain more than 2 ng/l for the sum of four PFAS.

According to Rita Loch-Caruso, a professor of toxicology at the University of Michigan, drinking water limits for PFAS continue to be lowered in response to mounting evidence of their health effects. "We're finding health effects at lower and lower concentrations -- in the single digits," she said.

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Chemist and PFAS expert Roger Klein said he believes the "British DWI limits are ridiculously high by current international standards".

He also believes the practice of mixing water to dilute PFAS is wrong. "It is the lazy exit and failure to remove PFAS that remains an issue as [they] are very persistent and bioaccumulative."

A Defra spokesman said the UK has "very high standards" for drinking water and that water companies "must carry out regular risk assessments and sampling for PFAS to ensure drinking water supplies remain safe".

“PFAS chemicals enter the environment because they are widely used in products and are extremely persistent. Since the 2000s, we have taken steps to increase surveillance and support the ban or restriction of certain PFAS both nationally and internationally," they said, adding that the department will continue to work with regulators to assess the risks to understand.

Despite the large number of discoveries revealed by the map, it is believed to be the tip of the iceberg. The Environment Agency acknowledged that PFOS -- known to be toxic to fish and other aquatic life -- is ubiquitous in the environment and that the presence of PFOS in rivers will mean many will not meet water quality standards by 2039.

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Only PFOS and PFOA are regulated in the UK. In the EU there is a proposal to regulate PFAS as a class rather than trying to deal with each substance individually. European Chemicals Agencyit saysthat around 4.4 million tonnes of PFAS will be released into the environment over the next 30 years if no action is taken.

The Fluoropolymer Products Group (FPG) opposes EU efforts to treat all PFAS as a class and advocates distinguishing between fluoropolymers and other groups of PFAS and considering the different risk profiles and uses of each group separately. "While FPG understands concerns related to the potential persistence of most PFAS, we believe these environmental concerns can be addressed through alternative restrictions rather than a ban," said Nicolas Robin, Director of FPG.

"[PFAS pollution] is similar to plastic pollution in that these chemicals are not degradable, [but] in the case of PFAS it is invisible," Cousins ​​said. “We are constantly releasing them, so levels in the environment will continue to rise and it is only a matter of time before levels of PFAS in the environment or in our bodies exceed the threshold at which human health impacts occur come,” he said.

The Forever Pollution Project was originally developed by Le Monde (France), NDR, WDR and Süddeutsche Zeitung (Germany), RADAR Magazine and Le Scienze (Italy), The Investigative Desk and NRC (Netherlands) with financial support fromJournalismfund.euand Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU); researched and published by Knack (Belgium), Denik Referendum (Czech Republic), Politiken (Denmark), YLE (Finland), Reporters United (Greece), Latvian Radio (Latvia), Datadista (Spain), SRF (Switzerland),Watershed investigations/The Guardian (UK); and supported byArena for journalism in Europefor cross-border cooperation.

Some areas may appear on the map with worse pollution problems than others, but this could be due to a region having a tighter monitoring system or being more willing to share data. At water concentrations, 1 ng/l corresponds to 1 ng/kg. Every effort has been made to ensure that the data collected from a variety of sources in the UK and Europe is accurate.


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