In a startling new study, European researchers say the spread of some dangerous chemicals is so widespread that rainwater from remote areas like Antarctica and the Tibetan Plateau could contain toxic amounts of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. (PFAS) in the environment.
A substantial body of evidence indicating potentially harmful effects on human health has led to the phasing out of many PFAS compounds from production settings over the past 20 years. However, just because we stopped using these chemicals doesn’t mean they instantly disappeared from our planet. PFAS have often been referred to as “eternal chemicals” due to their lasting impacts on our ecosystem.
According to a recent study, as we learn more about the harmfulness of these chemicals, suggested safety levels for PFAS have steadily declined in recent years. And currently, several guidelines advise using PFAS at safe levels below the average levels found in the natural environment.
Researchers from Stockholm University and ETH Zurich have published their findings in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. It has been discovered that PFAS, also known as forever chemicals in rainwater, have reached dangerous levels and are now ubiquitous. PFAS are a large group of over 4700 industrial chemicals that are commonly found in everyday products such as food and food packaging, clothing, toiletries, cosmetics and even kitchen utensils. kitchen. PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorosulfonate) are two types of perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
Ian Cousins, lead author of the study said:
There has been an astonishing decline in guideline values for PFAS in drinking water over the past 20 years. For example, the drinking water guideline value of a well-known PFAS-class substance, the carcinogen perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), has decreased 37.5 million times in the United States.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has warned that lifetime exposure to “near zero” levels of PFOA in drinking water could harm health. However, according to a recent study, the problem is that PFOA concentrations in precipitation around the world have exceeded levels considered safe by the EPA. This includes water samples from remote areas like the Tibetan Plateau and Antarctica.
The cousins added:
Based on the latest US guidelines for PFOA in drinking water, rainwater everywhere would be deemed unsafe to drink. Although we don’t often drink rainwater in the industrial world, many people around the world expect it to be safe to drink and it powers many of our drinking water sources.
The new study focused on four specific PFAS pollutants found in our environment. He found that although these four compounds have generally declined in recent years due to environmental factors, they will likely continue to circulate in the hydrosphere for a very long time.
Over time, the values used to set limits for PFAS in drinking water, surface water and soil have changed significantly. However, rainwater is currently too polluted with toxic chemicals to be drinkable, according to researchers.
“There has been an astonishing decline in guideline values for PFAS in drinking water over the past 20 years. For example, the drinking water guideline value for a well-known PFAS-class substance, the carcinogenic perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), has decreased 37.5 million times in the United States,” said Ian. Cousins in a press release.
Martin Scheringer, co-author of the study, explained:
“So now, due to the global spread of PFAS, environmental media everywhere will exceed environmental quality guidelines designed to protect human health. There is not much we can do to reduce PFAS contamination. In other words, it makes sense to set a planetary limit specifically for PFAS and, as we conclude in the article, that limit has now been exceeded.
The claim that the presence of these compounds in rainwater is “virtually irreversible” may be the most concerning aspect of the new study. Although the overall long-term health implications of very low-level exposure to these four PFAS chemicals are still unknown, researchers point out that many less-studied PFAS compounds are currently in use.
The researchers are calling for immediate restrictions on the use of the entire class of PFAS compounds, as it is likely that the few harmful PFAS chemicals mentioned in the report are just the “tip of the iceberg”.
PFAS have been linked to a wide range of serious health risks, including cancer, learning problems in children, fertility problems, pregnancy complications, increased cholesterol, and systemic problems. immune, among others.
Jane Muncke, chief executive of the Food Packaging Forum in Switzerland, said companies should not be allowed to “benefit economically while polluting the drinking water of millions of others and causing serious health problems”. .
“The enormous sums it will cost to reduce PFAS in drinking water to safe levels based on current scientific knowledge must be paid for by the industry producing and using these toxic chemicals,” Muncke said. “It’s time to act.”
The study concludes:
“Given the impacts of humanity’s chemical footprint on planetary health, it is of great importance to avoid further escalation of the problem of large-scale, long-term environmental and human exposure to PFAS. rapidly restricting the uses of PFAS where possible.Furthermore, as we and others have said before, society should not continually repeat the same mistakes with other persistent chemicals.
The new review was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology on August 2, 2022.