PFAS: Rainwater undrinkable everywhere, study finds

European researchers say global levels of man-made “eternal chemicals” have made rainwater undrinkable around the world, even in the most remote areas.

The study, published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology by researchers from Stockholm University and ETH Zurich, claims that guidelines for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the Drinking water, surface water and soil have dropped “dramatically” in recent years. the last 20 years “due to new knowledge about their toxicity”.

Ian Cousins, lead author of the study and a professor at Stockholm University, called the decline “staggering”.

In a press release, he said one chemical in particular — the carcinogenic perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA — has seen drinking water guidelines cut 37.5 million times in the United States.

“Based on the latest US guidelines for PFOA in drinking water, rainwater anywhere would be deemed unsafe to drink,” Cousins ​​said.

“Although in the industrial world we do not often drink rainwater, many people around the world expect it to be safe to drink and to supply many of our drinking water sources. “

The term PFAS is used to describe the thousands of man-made substances historically found in a number of items such as surfactants, lubricants, repellents, fire fighting foam, textiles, cosmetics and food packaging, according to the Canadian government.

Exposure to PFAS can occur through food, drinking water, and household dust, and is associated with reproductive, developmental, endocrine, liver, kidney, and immunological problems, as well as certain cancers.

Due to their ability to last in the environment for long periods of time, experts often describe PFAS as “eternal chemicals”.

The researchers say the global spread of PFAS in the atmosphere means they can be found in rainwater and snow, even in remote areas, such as Antarctica and the Tibetan Plateau.

While manufacturer 3M has been working to phase out the substances for two decades, researchers say some harmful PFAS are not seeing a noticeable decline in the atmosphere.

“The extreme persistence and continued global cycle of certain PFAS will lead to continued exceedance of the above guidelines,” study co-author and Professor Martin Scheringer said in the statement.

Scheringer says that because of this, “it makes sense to set a planetary limit specifically for PFAS and, as we conclude in the paper, that limit has now been exceeded.”

Jane Muncke, chief executive of the Food Packaging Forum in Switzerland, who was not involved in the study, said in the press release that companies should not be allowed to “benefit economically while polluting the environment”. drinking water for millions more 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.”

With files from The Associated Press