The Eternal Chemical Crisis: Global Water Sources Exceed Safe PFAS Limits - Latest Global News

The Eternal Chemical Crisis: Global Water Sources Exceed Safe PFAS Limits

PFAS chemicals are widespread in many everyday products and the environment, raising health and environmental concerns due to their persistence and association with multiple health risks. Recent research shows that global source water often has PFAS levels above safe drinking standards, highlighting the need for stricter monitoring and regulation.

A new study from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney suggests that the future environmental impact of PFAS may be underestimated.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – commonly known as PFAS – are a collection of more than 14,000 synthetic chemicals. Since the 1950s, these chemicals have been valued for their remarkable ability to repel heat, water, grease and stains. They are commonly found in everyday items such as nonstick cookware, clothing, beauty products, pesticides and food containers, as well as in specialized industrial applications including firefighting foam.

But despite their diverse capabilities, the chemicals have a dark side: They are known as “perpetual chemicals” because once they are in the environment – ​​or our bodies – they do not break down further. PFAS have been linked to environmental and health problems, including some types of cancer. However, there is still much unknown about the true extent and potential impact of the problem – including the amount of PFAS found in our water supply.

A new international study led by UNSW, published today in Natural geosciences, assessed the level of PFAS contamination in surface and groundwater around the globe. Much of our global source water has been found to exceed PFAS safe drinking limits.

“Many of our source waters are above legal limits for PFAS,” says the study’s lead author, UNSW engineering professor Denis O’Carroll.

“We already knew that PFAS were widespread in the environment, but I was surprised to learn the large proportion of source waters that exceed drinking water recommendations,” he says. “We’re talking over 5 percent, in some cases it’s over 50 percent.”

The research team compiled PFAS measurements from sources around the world, including government reports, databases and peer-reviewed literature. In total, they collected more than 45,000 data points spanning a period of about 20 years. It is the first study to quantify the environmental impact of PFAS on a global scale.

The study also found high levels of PFAS in Australia, with many locations above recommended drinking water levels. This has typically been the case in areas where firefighting foams have been used in the past, such as military installations and fire training facilities. Prof. O’Carroll emphasizes that these traces of PFAS are found in source B. Dams, rather than the drinking water itself – drinking water goes through treatment plants, some of which are designed to reduce the amount of chemicals like PFAS in our water, before it comes out of the tap.

But some water suppliers – Sydney Water, for example – do not routinely measure the broad spectrum of PFAS that may be present in our drinking water, says Prof O’Carroll.

“Drinking water is largely safe and I’m not afraid to drink it,” he says. “I’m also not saying bottled water is better because that doesn’t mean they’ve done anything different than what comes out of the tap. But I definitely think it’s worth monitoring PFAS levels and making the data easily available.”

A controversial debate: How much PFAS is too much?

Most people in Australia – and many places around the world – are likely to have low levels of PFAS in their bodies.

However, the potential health risks of PFAS chemicals are poorly understood and not widely recognized.

According to an Australian government health expert panel, there is limited or no evidence that PFAS poses clinically significant harm to human health – although further afield, peak bodies in the US and Europe indicate that PFAS are associated with negative health consequences such as: . B. a lower birth rate, weight in babies, higher cholesterol levels, reduced kidney function, thyroid disease, altered sex hormone levels, reduced vaccination response and liver, kidney and testicular cancer.

In 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared PFOA, a type of PFAS, a Category 1 human carcinogen.

Although PFAS has been linked to many of these health consequences, this has not necessarily been proven Caused But given the potential risks and “forever” nature of these chemicals, many regulators have taken precautionary measures to tighten the use of PFAS and establish safe drinking water limits.

“Two forms of PFAS first raised concerns about 20 years ago: PFOS and PFOA,” says Prof. O’Carroll. “These chemicals are regulated to different levels around the world. In the US, proposed drinking water limits for PFOS and PFOA are four nanograms per liter.”

A third PFAS is also regulated in Australia and is called PFHxS. Here, the sum of PFOS and PFHxS is limited to 70 nanograms per liter – well above the combined PFOS and PFOA limit of four nanograms per liter in the USA. However, our acceptable levels of PFOA in drinking water are even higher.

“PFOA, on the other hand, is regulated at 560 nanograms per liter in Australia, which is two orders of magnitude higher than in the US,” says Prof O’Carroll.

While Australia’s limits appear relaxed compared to the United States, both countries’ recommended drinking water guidelines pale in comparison to Canada’s: Instead of limiting just two or three forms of PFAS in drinking water, Canada counts the sum of all 14,000 PFAS and limits the total to 30 nanograms per Liter.

The study found that 69 percent of global groundwater samples with no known source of contamination exceeded Health Canada’s criteria for safe drinking water, while 32 percent of the same samples exceeded the U.S.’s proposed Drinking Water Hazard Index.

“There is a debate about the level to which PFAS should be regulated,” says Prof O’Carroll. “Australia has much higher limits than the US, but the question is why. Both health authorities would justify this differently and there is not really a strong consensus here.”

An underestimated risk

The study suggests that the actual PFAS contamination of global water resources may be higher than suspected.

This is partly because we monitor and regulate only a limited number of the 14,000 PFASs present, and also because levels of PFAS in consumer products are higher than expected.

“There is a truly unknown amount of PFAS that we are not measuring in the environment,” says Prof O’Carroll. “Commercial products like clothing and food packaging contain far more PFAS than we realize. This means we are likely underestimating the environmental impact of PFAS.”

Prof. O’Carroll and his team are now trying to further their research by quantifying these levels of PFAS from commercial products in the environment.

They are also working to develop technologies that can break down PFAS in drinking water systems and are considering developing predictive models that determine where PFAS go in the environment.

“Part of this is finding out how PFAS binds to different parts of the environment and our bodies – for example, proteins,” says Prof O’Carroll.

These studies will be conducted over the next two years and are expected to be completed by 2026.

In the meantime, Prof O’Carroll says manufacturers and consumers alike need to be cautious and do their due diligence when using products containing PFAS.

“We produce and distribute many chemicals without a full assessment of their potential health effects,” he says. We should use some of these chemicals carefully. Just because they’re available doesn’t mean we should use them.”

Reference: “Underestimated pollution of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in global surface waters and groundwater” by Diana Ackerman Grunfeld, Daniel Gilbert, Jennifer Hou, Adele M. Jones, Matthew J. Lee, Tohren CG Kibbey and Denis M. O’Carroll, 8. April 2024, Natural geosciences.
DOI: 10.1038/s41561-024-01402-8

The study was funded by the Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) grant.

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