Forever Chemical Levels In Water “Extremely Alarming”

Water management consultants - H2O Building Services


Late last month (November), the Guardian, Watershed Investigations and the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) published a report revealing that potentially toxic forever chemicals were detected in drinking water supplies at 17 out of 18 water companies in England, with 11, 853 samples testing positive… something that experts have said they find “extremely [alarming]”.


The investigation found chemicals used in industrial processes, consumer products and firefighting foams (known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances – or PFAS) were detected in samples of both raw and treated water.


Some of these PFAS have been linked with conditions like thyroid disease and cancers, as well as problems associated with the immune system and fertility, while also potentially causing developmental defects in unborn children.


Contamination is considered to be high risk when chemicals are equal to or more than 100 nanograms a litre. At this point, action must be taken to dilute chemical levels, or remove the water source from public supply altogether.


Despite the fact that PFOS and PFOA are both now mostly banned, the investigation revealed that the former was detected in raw untreated water at 18 times the 100ng/l limit for drinking water, while PFOA was detected at 1.5 times the limit.


The water supplier with the biggest chemical problem was found to be Affinity Water, which had 73 raw samples above the maximum limits set by the DWI. Anglian Water followed in second, with 22 raw samples taken from two groundwater sources above the limit.


According to the DWI, these high concentrations won’t have made it into the pipe network because contaminated water is blended with other sources to dilute the chemical levels.


However, because some of these chemicals have been manufactured for decades, there is a lag between production and requirements for testing by the water sector. Ultimately, this means that there will likely be some people around the country who have consumed high levels of chemicals in their tap water.


Data was also provided by 12 water companies for PFAs in treated water, with eight of them amassing a total of 398 samples with chemicals above 10ng/l, which puts them in the second tier medium-risk category… and at this level, blending to dilute chemical levels is not a requirement.


Stephanie Metzger, policy adviser at the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), commented on the findings, saying the report indicates that there are people who have been drinking medium-risk water, adding: “We don’t think anyone should be drinking medium-risk water. The toxicology data shows the risk of health effects becoming more over time as PFAS builds up in our body.”


The RSC is now calling for a significant reduction of the limit for PFAS types, down from 100ng/l to 10ng/l, while also introducing an overall limit of 100ng/l for the total amount of these chemicals. This would bring England and Wales more in line with Scotland and the EU, which both have stricter rules for chemicals in treated water.


It also wants to see more regular monitoring and a new chemicals agency set up to deal with these chemicals, as well as other contaminants.


Ms Metzger went on to add: “There are so many PFAS out there and we are only testing for 47 and there are so many information gaps. There could be more PFAS out there we are exposed to. There needs to be more broad testing.”


What are PFAS?


PFAS are a group of complex synthetic chemicals that have been a featured ingredient in many consumer products all over the world since the 1950s. They can be found in a vast array of different everyday common-use products like the aforementioned firefighting foam, non-stick pots and pans, non-stick packaging, stain-resistant carpets and clothes, and so on.


They’re often referred to as forever chemicals because they have a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms, which is one of the strongest bonds, so the chemicals don’t break down in the environment particularly easily.


Our exposure to these chemicals is widespread because they can leak into the water, soil and air over time, but one of the most likely sources of contamination is drinking water and food, as well as breathing in contaminated air or using products that have been made with these substances.


Because the chemicals don’t break down and stay in the environment for an undetermined amount of time, bioaccumulation is a cause for serious concern and it’s possible that people will take in more of these substances than they excrete, thus allowing levels to build up over time.


It’s not just human health that these chemicals put at risk either. Although we can’t see them in the natural environment, rest assured that they are indeed there, causing harm to wildlife and local biodiversity.


Studies show that PFAS can potentially harm the kidney and liver function of bottlenose dolphins, as well as their immune systems for example. It’s also been found that they can build up in remote Arctic polar bears, potentially causing neurological damage, affecting hormone levels and disrupting reproduction.


Where public drinking water supplies are concerned, the technology does exist to remove these PFAS. A new innovative technology developed by Puraffinity (part of Imperial College London) uses absorbent materials to trap and remove these substances from water, for example.


It’s even possible for the system to be modified so that individual types of PFAS can be targeted, thus enabling it to adapt and evolve to changing regulations around the world, while allowing it to be scaled up for industrial use or scaled down for domestic purposes.


Given how pervasive the use of PFAS is in the 21st century and how significant their contribution is to life as we know it, it’s essential that more is done to ensure that they’re managed appropriately throughout their life cycle, as well as filtered out of drinking water so that we can continue reap the benefits of their inclusion without any of the associated risks.


Looking to make your business more water efficient? Get in touch with our team of water management consultants today to see how we can help.