PFAS chemicals: Drinking water plagued with toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in third of UK areas - what are they?

Scientists have found unacceptably high levels of PFAS in UK drinking water - chemicals that can cause cancer and fertility issues

Drinking water plagued with toxic PFAS chemicals in a third of UK areas. (Photo: Getty Images) Drinking water plagued with toxic PFAS chemicals in a third of UK areas. (Photo: Getty Images)
Drinking water plagued with toxic PFAS chemicals in a third of UK areas. (Photo: Getty Images)

Drinking water supplies in the UK have been said to contain unacceptably high levels of “forever chemicals” which are “near indestructible in our bodies” and have been linked to cancer. Researchers at the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) found that more than a third of waterways exceeded recommended limits of PFAS.

A third of samples analysed at more than 1,000 places in the UK were either low or medium risk, refined as more than 10 nanograms per litre of water. Less than one in 20 sites were above the “high” threshold which requires work to be done by water companies to lower the levels.

PFAS is an umbrella term of more than 10,000 different chemicals found in various materials such as non-stick pans, waterproofing, batteries and medical equipment. They have been linked to health conditions such as testicular cancer, liver damage and fertility issues.

UK water companies are currently not required by law to reduce PFAS until they are deemed ‘high risk’. Current standards allow concentrations of each individual PFAS at up to 10 times the level considered ‘low risk’, which is 10ng/L (nanograms per litre and there is currently no overarching limit on the total concentration when they are combined.

However, the US is introducing a new limit of four nanograms per litre (ng/L) for each of PFOS and PFOA, two of the most common PFAS. The EU’s Drinking Water Directive also has legislation stating that 20 widespread PFAS must collectively not exceed 100 ng/L.

The RSC is calling on the UK government to reduce the current cap per individual type of PFAS 10-fold from 100 nanograms per litre (ng/L) to 10 ng/L of drinking water and introduce a cap on the total level of PFAS combined of 100ng/L. Stephanie Metzger, Policy Advisor at the RSC, said there needs to be “stricter standards” so everyone can “drink water that’s considered low risk.”

The RSC has launched an interactive map which allows people to see the PFAS concentration in their local constituency’s waters. The map shows there are areas in England and Wales that have waterways which are exceeding the threshold for the concentration of PFAS including the River Thames.

Ms Metzger said: “We just need to make sure PFAS are handled appropriately during manufacturing, disposed of safely, and filtered out of our drinking water, so that we can keep all the benefits without the adverse side effects, and a National Chemicals Agency could be key to helping achieve this.”

A spokesperson from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs said: “Drinking water standards in England are of an exceptionally high standard and are among the best in the world. Water companies are required to carry out regular risk assessments and sampling for any substance – including PFAS – that they believe may cause the water supply to pose a risk to human health. Work is continuing across government to help us assess levels of PFAS occurring in the environment, their sources and potential risks to inform future policy and regulatory approaches.”

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