Growing attention on the forever chemicals

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By Lis Stedman


The EEA’s briefing document on the known and potential risks to human health and the environment in Europe from per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), known as the forever chemicals, reflects a much wider unease and scrutiny of these highly persistent and ubiquitous chemicals.

These organic, man-made chemicals – a group of more than 4700 – have unique chemical and physical properties, including oil and water repellence, and temperature and chemical resistance. So they have many uses, from non-stick coatings, paper food packaging, cosmetics, and waterproofing for materials, to fire-retardant foams, paints and pesticides. They have been associated with various cancers, reduced birth weights, and negative effects on the immune system. They are also generally legal, persistent, and highly mobile in air and water.

As an example of the current level of concern, the California Water Boards announced in February a reduction in the levels in drinking water that trigger responses by local water systems for two of the most common of the group – perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). The new response levels, of 10 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and 40 ppt for PFOS, are considerably more stringent than the previous response level, which was 70ppt for the two contaminants combined.

Under the new legislation, if a water system receives a State Water Board order for testing and finds a PFOA or PFOS concentration exceeding their response level, the system is required to take the water source out of service, provide treatment, or notify their customers in writing, and communicate the results to the public.

Under scrutiny

In the US, scrutiny is at a high level. Recently, an environmental watchdog, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), reported results from tap water samples across 44 sites in 32 states and territories, and found only one location free from detectable PFAS. On average, six or seven PFAS were found at test sites. Likewise, the EEA’s work has found PFAS in the environment across Europe, and biomonitoring revealed a range of PFAs in the blood of European citizens.

In December 2019, the USEPA unveiled interim guidance to address PFAS contamination in groundwater, as well as a new validated method for testing PFAS in drinking water. USEPA’s guidance recommends using a screening level of 40 ppt to determine if perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and/or perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) – the two most common PFAS compounds – are present.

In addition, USEPA recommends using the drinking water health advisory level of 70ppt as the preliminary remediation goal (PRG) for contaminated groundwater, though many states have already adopted lower levels. The California American Water Company (Cal-Am) also filed a lawsuit in January, to sue the US Air Force for allegedly knowingly contaminating one of its potable water sources by disposing of a firefighting foam containing PFOS and PFOA at its former Mather base.

Impetus to reduce use

There is considerable impetus to the movement to reduce their use – fashion group H&M and Danish retailer Coop are joining chemical expert NGO ChemSec’s corporate initiative for a call to action to end the use of PFAS in products and supply chains. European water trade body Eureau has announced its backing for this. Among other proposals, it calls on policy-makers to regulate PFAS efficiently, without manufacturers being able to swap one for an unregulated ‘cousin’, and for the chemical industry to develop safer alternatives.

The chemicals also feature in the 2019 film Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo and directed by Todd Haynes, in which a lawyer takes on chemical giant DuPont and exposes decades of PFOA pollution. In essence similar to the plot of Erin Brockovich, the film is also based on a real-life case, in which a local of Parkersburg, West Virginia, asks the lawyer to investigate a number of unexplained deaths in the area.

The EEA’s review highlights existing measures in Europe, such as PFOS and PFOA being listed under Annex A of the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants (POPs), implying that parties to the Convention should ‘eliminate the production and use’ of these chemicals.

At an EU level, PFOS is restricted under the POPs regulation 2019, and PFOA and its precursors are restricted under the REACH regulation 2006. A forthcoming restriction under the POPs regulation will reduce the derogations available.

Across Europe, several countries have been actively monitoring PFAS in the environment, humans and products, and some have set national limit values for water and soil (Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden), for textiles (Norway), and for food contact materials (Denmark). Several member states have set drinking water limits for specific PFAS and for groups of PFAS.

Precautionary approaches

Looking ahead, the EEA report notes that substance-by-substance risk assessments and comprehensive environmental monitoring to understand exposure would be extremely lengthy and resource-intensive, and that complementary and precautionary approaches to managing PFAS are, therefore, being explored.

This includes the regulation of PFAS as a class, or as subgroups, based on toxicity or chemical similarities. The proposal is to establish a new group limit value for PFAS of 0.5μg/l, as well as limits for 16 individual PFAS of 0.1μg/l in drinking water, under the revised EU Drinking Water Directive currently under consideration. Such measures can be supported by cost-effective and targeted monitoring of PFAS in the environment to provide early warning signals of pollution, the review says. Last June, the European Council of Ministers also called for an action plan to eliminate all non-essential uses.

As the review points out, the move towards zero pollution requires that product life-cycles be made safer from the start, based on the principle of ‘safe and circular by design’, which it concludes gives opportunities to protect the health of Europe’s citizens and environment while driving innovation for safer chemicals.


“Countries have been actively monitoring PFAS in the environment, humans and products”