‘Forever chemicals’ in England’s waters means pollution targets won’t be met for decades, government admits

The government has admitted waterways will not have good chemical status until 2063 as there is no way to remove the dangerous substances entirely

The government has admitted England will not meet its targets for waterways having good chemical status by 2027 partly because of the PFAS “forever chemicals” in our rivers.

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a large group of manufactured chemicals that are ingredients in various everyday products. In many areas of England standards for PFAS will not be met until 2063.

Officials have said there is no way for them to remove PFAS, some of which are classified as uPBT (ubiquitous, persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic) substances.

They told The Guardian there is no feasible technical solution to removing them entirely and that they will take time to naturally drop to required levels.

The chemicals do not break down in the environment, build up in the body and may be toxic. They form a family of about 10,000 chemicals valued for their non-stick and detergent properties.

The government’s new mapping project, investigating and mapping out the sources of PFAs, has revealed that these chemicals have been found at high levels at thousands of sites across the UK and Europe.

The map shows that in the UK, the highest levels of PFAS were found in a discharge from a chemicals plant on the River Wyre, above Blackpool.

Fish in the river have been found to contain high levels of PFAS, with flounder containing up to 11,000ng/kg, according to data from Defra’s Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science.

Despite the large number of detections revealed by the map, the Environment Agency has already admitted that PFOS, known to be toxic to fish and other aquatic life, is found everywhere in the environment and that the presence of PFOS in rivers will mean that many will not meet water quality standards until 2039.

In 2021 the Environment Agency admitted in a report: “Monitoring data for rivers, lakes, groundwater, estuaries and coastal waters suggests it is likely that PFAS is widely present in English surface waters and groundwater.”

Another document from the agency said: “PFOS is a widespread environmental contaminant. Our monitoring programme in surface waters has reported the presence of PFOS in all fish sampled from fresh, estuarine and coastal waters.

“Measured concentrations in fish ranged from below the environmental quality standard (EQS) to up to four times greater than the biota EQS.”

At the moment, all of England’s rivers fail to meet pollution tests because of chemical and sewage pollution. Only 14% of England’s rivers are classified as having “good” ecological status by the Environment Agency - the rest would be either bad, poor, or moderate.

The Agency also found that more than half of England’s rivers and three-quarters of its lakes are considered to have too much phosphorus in them. Phosphorus can cause eutrophication in water bodies, starving them of oxygen and killing wildlife.

The government said: “Since the 2000s we have taken action to increase monitoring and support a ban or restrict specific PFAS both domestically and internationally. We are undertaking investigations to understand and map out the sources of PFAS, using additional controls to reduce their risk to the environment.

“We are also taking significant steps to improve our water environment, including new legal targets on pollution, tougher regulation and enforcement, and a requirement on water companies to deliver their largest ever infrastructure investment.”

A Defra group spokesperson said: “UK drinking water standards are very high, among the best in the world. Water companies are required to carry out regular risk assessments and sampling for PFAS to ensure the drinking water supply remains safe.

“PFAS chemicals are in the environment because they have been used widely in products and are extremely persistent. Since the 2000s, we have taken action to increase monitoring and support a ban or highly restrict specific PFAS both domestically and internationally.

“We continue to work with regulators to further understand the risks of PFAS and implement measures to address them.”