Is the UK absent from the fight against PFAS ‘forever chemical’ pollution?

Nations are scrambling to combat the risks posed by forever chemicals in rivers and drinking water by toughening up regulation, but the UK appears to be lagging behind, find Rachel Salvidge and Leana Hosea

In December, 3M announced plans to get out of the PFAS business “and work to discontinue the use of PFAS across its product portfolio by the end of 2025” (Photo by DAVID PINTENS/BELGA/AFP via Getty Images)

“Due to the global spread of PFAS, the irreversibility of exposure to PFAS, and the associated biological effects, a new planetary boundary for PFAS has been exceeded,” concludes a team of scientists at Stockholm University.

PFAS, short for per and polyfluorinated alkyl substances – a family of around 10,000 chemicals – are used in a huge range of consumer products from cookware and cosmetics to furniture and food packaging, to a wide array of industrial processes.

They’re tough substances, valued for their non-stick properties, but their robustness is part of the problem. They don’t break down in the environment, which means the pollution burden is forever increasing. Many build up in organisms who have the misfortune to ingest them and they magnify up the food chain so those at the top receive the highest concentrations via their prey.

Two PFAS – PFOS and PFOA – are considered to be toxic over certain exposures. They’ve been linked to a range of diseases in humans, including kidney cancer, testicular cancer, hypertension, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, and reduced response to vaccines. 

Studies of laboratory animals given large amounts of the substances suggest that some PFAS may affect growth and development, reproduction, thyroid function, the immune system, and injure the liver.

ENDS TV: Join us live on 27 February to hear expert speakers discuss the UK's PFAS problem

As a result of these findings, standards for PFAS in drinking water have been plummeting. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency has set a health advisory limit of 0.004ng/l for PFOA and 0.02ng/l for PFOS. In Denmark, the Environmental Protection Agency stipulates that drinking water must not contain more than 2ng/l for the sum of four PFASs, and Sweden is 4ng/l for four PFAS.

The limits for England and Wales are far more lax, with the Drinking Water Inspectorates guidelines currently at 100ng/l for PFOS and 100ng/l for PFOA.

Professor Ian Cousins, environmental scientist at Stockholm University and lead author of the PFAS planetary boundary study, said the “major thing that's driven all of the drinking water standards down massively in the US and in Denmark and Sweden… is the immunotoxicity.

“The first study was in the Faroe Islands when they looked at the vaccines becoming less effective in children for tetanus and diphtheria… and there's been more studies since then. So that has driven the safe levels down really low all over the place.”

Also helping to focus minds is the growing number of PFAS pollution scandals in the US and Europe, often involving chemicals manufacturing plants or sites that have used large volumes of PFAS-laden firefighting foams.

In Belgium, contamination linked to a 3M plant has led to authorities warning people nearby against eating eggs laid in their gardens and to avoid homegrown vegetables. Some 70,000 people living within 5km of the plant have been offered blood tests to see whether PFAS can be detected.

COMING SOON: Live on Monday 27 February at 15:30 GMT - Toxic timebomb: Tackling the UK’s PFAS problem

In December, 3M announced plans to get out of the PFAS business “and work to discontinue the use of PFAS across its product portfolio by the end of 2025”.

Currently in the UK, only PFOS and PFOA are regulated, the result of decades of scientific scrutiny.

Recognising the sisyphean task of trying to establish an evidence base for the remaining thousands of PFAS, while more are created and placed on the market, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden submitted a proposal to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to regulate around 10,000 PFAS as a single class, rather than individually.

ECHA says the proposal “aims to reduce PFAS emissions into the environment and make products and processes safer for people”. Peter van der Zandt, the agency’s director for risk assessment said: “This landmark proposal by the five authorities supports the ambitions of the EU’s Chemicals Strategy and the Zero Pollution action plan.

“Now, our scientific committees will start their evaluation and opinion forming. While the evaluation of such a broad proposal with thousands of substances, and many uses, will be challenging, we are ready.”

Professor Crispin Halsall, environmental chemist from Lancaster University, said he “supports the inclusion of PFAS in their entirety, the whole chemical group, being submitted to UNEP and the Stockholm Convention for Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), rather than just selecting one or two compounds”.

Halsall says he believes there are problems with the chemicals industry shifting away from PFOS and PFOA and similar substances to shorter chain compounds – those with fewer carbons in their molecules.

COMING SOON: Dark Waters lawyer to speak at ENDS Report PFAS webinar

“As a consequence, we're seeing higher levels of those C4 chemicals in the wider environment now. But they don't bioaccumulate to the same extent that the C8 compounds do – I think there's sufficient evidence out there.”

But the toxicology is lagging behind, he says. “We don't know what exposure to C4 what harm that that causes, if at all, we really don't know as there is a lot of uncertainty there. But that's no reason why we should still keep producing very, very persistent chemicals, which clearly the C4 are, they're just as persistent really as the eight. It's just that the evidence for them bioaccumulating is much less than for the C8 longer chain compounds.”

Following Brexit, the UK had to establish a separate chemicals regulation regime and in December 2021 the Welsh and Scottish governments asked the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency to prepare a regulatory management options analysis (RMOA) for PFAS that would “investigate the risks posed by PFAS and recommend the best approach to protect human health and the environment from any identified risks”.

Delegates at a recent meeting of the Chemicals Stakeholder Forum heard that the Health and Safety Executive and Environment Agency are aiming to publish the RMOA this spring. A Chemicals Stakeholder Forum working group on PFAS, which was formed last year, first met in November and is set to meet again in March this year. It is currently developing short policy papers on challenges to moving away from PFAS, addressing the most critical risks of specific PFAS and how the government can support innovation for PFAS alternatives.

While work to restrict PFAS in the UK may be underway, it appears likely that restrictions will appear later than in Europe, and the shape of any regulations could differ from the bloc's, raising the prospect of further post-Brexit divergence on chemicals policy. Indeed, the EU's recent proposed blanket restriction on PFAS is not the only example of the EU moving faster than the UK.

In March 2022, ECHA submitted a proposal to restrict PFAS in firefighting foams, and there is a push among EU countries to drive down standards on the levels of PFAS deemed safe in rivers. Currently an environmental quality standard (EQS) is only in place in the UK for PFOS at an annual average of 0.65ng/l with a maximum allowable concentration of 36,000ng/l.

A spokesperson for DEFRA said: “PFAS chemicals are in the environment because they have been used widely in products and are extremely persistent. Since the 2000s we have taken action to increase monitoring and support a ban or highly restrict specific PFAS both domestically and internationally.”

“We continue to work with regulators to further understand the risks of PFAS and implement measures to address them.”

Green NGOs are pushing the UK government to regulate PFAS as a group, not one by one. “They just get replaced and there’s concerns of the substitutes being persistent and detrimental,” Clare Cavers of Fidra said. “This is what happened in the US, when PFOS and PFOA were replaced with GenX. It turned out to be a ‘regrettable substitute’, as research has found it has similarly hazardous properties”.

“We appreciate you can’t turn around tomorrow and ban PFAS”, says Cavers. “But we’d like to see that ambition put into an action plan around regulation in the UK.”

Rachel Salvidge and Leana Hosea are journalists from not-for-profit investigative journalism organisation Watershed Investigations.

ENDS TV: Professor Crispin Halsall, environmental chemist from Lancaster University, will next week take part in a webinar examining the increasing focus on the environmental impacts of PFAS in the UK, and its implications. Speakers at the webinar, which takes place on Monday 27 February at 3.30pm, will also include US attorney Robert Bilott, whose battle to get justice for those harmed by ‘forever chemical’ PFOA led to multi-million dollar legal payouts, a Hollywood movie and the shocking revelation that every American has the substance in their blood. For further details, please click here.