Excessive levels of PFAS found in UK drinking water
Daisy Scott, Online Science Editor, discusses recent findings that PFAS have been found at levels exceeding safe limits and what this could mean for human health.
A recent study has revealed that PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals” are now present at levels exceeding acceptable levels in UK drinking water and this is concerning scientists.
PFAS (Perfluorinated Alkyl Substances) are a large group of synthetic organofluorine chemicals that have been widely used since the 1940s. They are known as “forever chemicals” due to the very strong carbon-fluorine bond in their structure which allows them to withstand chemical attack as well as high temperatures. PFAS have a wide range of consumer and industrial applications, including food packaging, furniture, and non-stick pans. We’ve all been exposure to these chemicals in a variety of ways throughout our lives but we are most exposed through drinking water. However, there is increasing worldwide concern regarding the adverse impact arising from their use on human health and the environment.
The current guidelines from the UK drinking water inspectorate state that drinking water must contain PFAS at concentrations no more than 100 nanograms per litre (ng/l) and if levels above this are detected, action must be taken to reduce them. A study conducted by University of Greenwich and Manchester Metropolitan University in collaboration with the BBC took 45 samples from water around the UK. When these samples were analysed, 18 different types of PFAS were found in the water, however none of the samples taken exceeded 100ng/l. 25 of the samples contained PFAS, with four of them at levels exceeding 10ng/l, and even at these concentrations local healthcare professionals must be consulted and the levels further monitored.
Four of them at levels exceeding 10ng/l, and even at these concentrations local healthcare professionals must be consulted and levels further monitored
It has been previously known that concentrations of PFAS lower than 10ng/l can cause significant health risks. Rita Lock-Caruso, professor of toxicology at the University of Michigan stated, “We’re finding health effects at lower and lower concentrations – even in the single digits”. Professor Roger Klein, a chemist and PFAS expert previously said, “It is ridiculous that the UK drinking water inspectorate has a level of 100ng/l before action is taken”.
It is ridiculous that the UK drinking water inspectorate has a level of 100ng/l before action is taken
Recent research has found the most common PFAS, PFOA and PFOS have probable links to high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid diseases, testicular cancer and kidney cancer. However, the effect that PFAS have on children is of particular concern. Professor Philippe Grandjean at Harvard University has stated “A women may build up this in her body and when she gets pregnant, she shares that with her foetus. She eliminates part of her body burden into her milk”.
Even though PFOA and PFOS have been restricted in the UK and they are no longer manufactured, there are still a raft of other PFAS that are still being used and are not currently under regulation. Linda Birnbaum, former head of the National Institute of Environmental Sciences has said “We are beginning to think that there’s no such thing as a safe level and we want them to be as low as possible, because water is not the only source of exposure “.
With the known hazards that PFAS can have on human health, action must be taken to reduce their presence in the environment and particularly in drinking water.