PFAS, explained

The River Roding was ranked the worst waterway by having concentrations more than 20 times higher than the environmental quality standard (EQS). Photo by Ian Tokelove

PFAS, also known as ‘forever chemicals’, were a hot topic last year and will continue to be so in 2024. They’re present not only in our daily lives but also, worryingly, in the environment and inside our bodies. While these substances have been around since the 1940s, their environmental and health impacts have only started to be assessed in the 2000s and the current picture looks quite concerning.

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) comprise a group of more than 10,000 chemicals widely used in several industries for their ability to repel oil and water. Everyday products such as non-stick pans, water-repellent clothing and shoes, firefighting foams, and food containers are only a few examples. PFAS are also known as ‘forever chemicals’ as they can take over a thousand years to degrade. More than that, some PFAS are bioaccumulative, meaning they build up over time and exposure.

Due to their expansive use in consumer products, PFAS have also made their way into our water, soils and sediments, contaminating wildlife and people alike. At least two of these chemicals have been linked to health issues and have been largely banned: PFOA has been related to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and other illnesses, while PFOS has been associated with reproductive, developmental, and kidney diseases, to name a few.

In 2023, the Rivers Trust analysed Environment Agency data for 105 rivers in England, revealing that 81 out of the 105 rivers tested for PFAS exceeded a proposed EU standard, with 44 outpacing it by more than five times. Sadly, the River Roding, which is part of the Roding, Beam & Ingrebourne Catchment Partnership Thames21 co-hosts, was ranked among the worst waterways by having concentrations more than 20 times higher than the environmental quality standard (EQS).

Unsurprisingly, these have also been found in different levels in drinking water sources at 17 of England’s water companies, in samples of both raw and treated water, according to the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI). The DWI uses three tiers to categorise the risk of contamination of PFOS and PFOA, with tier 3 posing the highest risk and being the point at which companies should act to either dilute the PFAS or remove the water source from public supplies. However, no action is required for medium-risk water at tier 2, leading to the buildup of these chemicals in those drinking contaminated water.

England has a less strict standard when compared to the EU and the US, allowing up to 100ng/l for PFOA and PFOS, while the EU allows the same limit for the sum of 20 PFAS and the US has proposed dropping the limit to 4ng/l. The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) is currently pushing for a tenfold reduction in the limit for individual PFAS, dropping it to 10ng/l and an overall limit of 100ng/l for the total amount of PFAS.

The analysis of the concentration of PFOS in freshwater fish in England also presented alarming results: it’s on average 300 times higher than proposed new EU safe levels for aquatic biota. This is extremely worrying from both environmental and human health points of view, indicating the level of pollution affecting our waterways. Even more concerning is the fact that the actual levels of PFAS contamination in fish could be higher as there are over 10,000 other PFAS still in use that the Environment Agency didn’t account for in its fish data.

Rivers, wildlife, nature, and people not only deserve but need an environment free of toxic substances. The current limits and regulations are far from enough as the latest data corroborates. Policymakers, industry leaders, experts and environmentalists need to come together to phase out and find alternative sustainable solutions to forever chemicals. We need immediate action to protect what’s left and prevent further contamination of our vital resources.