PFAS poisoning: Why is so little known about the presence of ‘forever chemicals’ in UK drinking water?

Toxic PFAS is in the blood of almost everyone in the world. It is a problem whose significance is understood in America, Australia and across Europe, but less so in the UK, where awareness of the chemicals and their devastating health impacts is unusually low.

There is no routine monitoring for PFAS in UK drinking water. Photograph: Stockcam/Getty Images

In the States, manufacturers using a chemical from a family of substances called PFAS have paid out close to £1bn for poisoning the drinking water of Americans along the Ohio river, and two firms have put aside another £4bn in preparation for future cases expected to be brought against them by sick people across the country. 

In Australia’s Northern Territory, towns Oakey and Katherine were ordered not to drink tap water after finding levels of PFAS many times higher than the ‘safe’ limit in their water supplies. Their groundwater was poisoned by a nearby air base which used PFAS-rich fire fighting foams in large volumes. Last week, people in the area were awarded $212m Australian dollars by the federal government, but the residents - some of whom are suffering with cancer and thyroid disease - still fear for their health and for their children’s future.

In Italy, more than 350,000 residents of Veneto are thought to have been exposed to PFAS through their tap water, after industrial activity contaminated surface water and groundwater. A class action is being brought against the companies involved.

The substances causing alarm across the world are known collectively as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) - a family of around 4,700 manmade ‘forever chemicals’ that do not break down in the environment and instead accumulate in soil, water, wildlife and humans. Used for their water, grease and stain proof properties, they are found in an enormous variety of products from textiles, clothes, home furnishings and upholstery, carpets and leather, paper and packaging, to coatings and fire fighting foam. 

Some PFASs have been linked to range of diseases such as high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, pregnancy-induced hypertension, miscarriage, endocrine disruption, reduced birthweight, reduced sperm quality, delayed puberty, early menopause, and reduced immune response to tetanus vaccination. It’s also been shown that the chemicals can be passed on from mother to baby via the placenta and through breast milk.

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The unfolding crises have mobilised state and federal governments. Many have begun large drinking water testing programmes and set standards for the maximum acceptable levels of PFAS. 

In the US, a federal long term health advisory level of 70ng/l was established in 2016 for a combination of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. However, guidelines vary from state to state, with New Jersey mandating a maximum contaminant level for PFOA of 14ng/l and PFOS of 13ng/l. Vermont adopted a 20ng/l level for a combination of five different PFAS, while recently in Illinois the local Environmental Protection Agency in January adopted the lowest limit  for PFOA at 2ng/l and is also undertaking a statewide groundwater investigation programme.

In Europe, the most stringent drinking water guidelines have been set by Denmark at 100ng/l for the total of 12 PFASs, with lower levels proposed for PFOS of 3ng/l, and Sweden with 90ng/l for the sum of 11 PFASs.  Bavaria has regulated 13 individual PFASs to limits between 0.1µg/l and 10µg /l.

A revised Drinking Water Directive, adopted in December by the European Parliament, has gone further still, putting the maximum acceptable level at 0.1µg/l for the sum of 20 PFAS of concern and 0.5µg/l for PFAS Total, which covers all PFAS substances. The directive entered into force in January and member states have two years to transpose it.

But having left the bloc, the UK no longer has to abide by EU rules. DEFRA said it “would consider the effect of the changes made to the directive” but made no commitment to adopt it. Instead, it said it would address the issue as part of its Chemicals Strategy, which has been repeatedly delayed. A call for evidence is due this year.

So what is the UK doing about PFAS in drinking water? The Environment Agency has said it is “ubiquitous in the environment” so it could be expected that it too was scrambling to test and clean up its drinking waters, working hard to keep people safe. 

Not so. A recent WRc study commissioned by DEFRA, found that “limited data were identified in the UK regarding the presence of PFAS in surface water, groundwater, drinking water, wastewater and landfill leachate”. The researchers had to supplement data from European countries to model what might be happening in the UK.

They concluded that “it is unlikely that levels of any individual PFAS in drinking water will exceed 0.1µg/l (100 ng/l)”. But when the US adopted a 70ng/l health advisory for drinking water in 2016, this was compared to data collected as part of its unregulated contaminant monitoring round where drinking water was assessed for PFOA and PFOS, it identified that six million Americans’ water was over the 70ng/l limit. 

In the UK there are no routine tests for PFAS in drinking water, so there is uncertainty regarding exposure above the new levels deemed to be safe by Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI), which stand at 100ng/l for PFOA and PFOS and ignore the wider family of substances.

Dr Ian Ross, the global PFAS practice lead at consultancy TetraTech, said exposure to PFAS “at levels deemed unsafe in drinking water supplies is becoming more frequent in many countries, leading to an upsurge in class action lawsuits against polluters from residents. For example, residents using private boreholes located close to historic or current fire training activities are increasingly being identified to have PFAS-impacted drinking water. 

“The use of PFAS in firefighting foams which are used for training exercises and testing equipment is one potential source of contamination of groundwater used to supply drinking water. However, there are many other uses of PFAS that can potentially contaminate drinking water, including in car washes, metal plating, fluoropolymer production, application of textile and paper coatings etc.,” he added.

“This makes risk assessment of the need to test for PFAS in drinking water, via Regulation 27 [of the Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 2016] more complex,” said Ross. “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. This is more concerning now the new lower 10ng/l limit from DWI has been introduced which triggers consultation with health professionals.”

Frida Hok, deputy director of international chemical secretariat Chemsec, said it seemed “very strange that the UK is not monitoring for PFAS” in drinking water because it is “such a huge issue in a number of other countries”. 

“You get the feeling that [the government] is trying to hide something from the public… that they are trying to avoid an outraged public,” she said. “They might be scared of it.” 

Dr Kerry Dinsmore from environmental charity FIDRA says it is “ridiculous that we don’t have those measurements in the UK. Anything that we have done, any small scale studies have always been focused on PFOA and PFOS, which are the legacy chemicals on which we have restrictions”. This leaves a “huge gap in knowing anything about the wider groups”, she said.

Dinsmore added: “It’s really hindering the ability to understand the sources, because when you’re looking at those end products,  you’re not looking at what else is going into the system, which can biotransform into PFOS and PFOA, so it’s a really small section of the picture that we’re looking at.”

PFAS must be cut out at source, Dinmore said. “We’re not doing enough at the moment, because even if we were to find concentrations in the UK that are below a standard - that we don’t have at the minute - the only way that can go is up.”

It seems the government has only just begun to think about how it might deal with its PFAS contamination problem. DEFRA says it is working with the Environment Agency to “develop [its] approach to managing the risk from PFAS”. It says the initiative will “help us assess levels occurring in the environment, their sources and potential risks to inform future policy and regulatory approaches”.

The programme includes: “International engagement to understand approaches being taken across the world, collecting environmental data in England, developing new analytical methods, working with industry to assess risks of PFAS produced in the UK, identifying current and legacy uses and mapping potential sources, river catchment investigations, water company investigations to understand sources to sewer and wastewater treatment options.”

The Drinking Water Inspectorate also appears to be in the early stage of discovery. It has commissioned a “research project to produce a methodology for PFAS in drinking waters for all laboratories to use” to “facilitate monitoring for a wider range of PFAS in the UK”, DEFRA said. This project will review existing methodologies and develop a “multi PFAS method to include all the compounds listed in Annex III of the Revised Drinking Water Directive,” including what DEFRA says are the most prevalent substances which have been detected by agency monitoring: perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS), perfluoropentane sulfonic acid (PFPS) and perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS). However, products that contain these PFAS are still widely being sold and used by industry and consumers. 

But DEFRA is keen to point out that it need not shoulder the task alone. It says water companies should be monitoring for PFAS, as they are “required to carry out risk assessments under Regulation 27 of the Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 2016 as amended, and as such should use all relevant sources of information to assess the risks in the catchment, and put in place mitigations to protect public health”. 

The use of some substances such as PFOS and PFOA have been restricted and a group ban of PFAS is under consideration at the EU level, but replacement chemicals, known as GenX, are thought to be just as harmful and harder to detect. And once any PFAS substances are in the environment it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to undo the - as yet - untold damage.