Defra says PFAS have a wide range of uses for which “safer and more sustainable alternatives are not yet available”
US President Joe Biden has this month announced plans to drive down acceptable limits of PFAS, also known as ‘forever chemicals’, in drinking water to four nanograms per litre (4ng/l). This applies to two types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFOS and PFOA). President Biden has also announced proposals to regulate four more – PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and GenX Chemicals – as a mixture.
Rebecca Fuoco, Director of Science Communications at the US-based Green Science Policy Institute said: “The proposed rule caps PFOA and PFOS in drinking water at the lowest level at which they can be reliably measured.
“This is based on robust evidence that these compounds are likely to cause cancer (particularly kidney and liver cancer).
“It's a helpful step, but it only addresses six out of the thousands of PFAS that exist. Only a small fraction have been tested for toxicity and some newer PFAS first claimed to be safe have since been determined harmful.”
In the UK, Dr Clare Cavers, Senior Project Manager at the environmental charity Fidra, said: “We are constantly learning more about the levels of PFAS in the environment and their impacts, and none of it is reassuring. Fidra is asking the UK government to take urgent action to establish a group restriction on all non-essential uses of PFAS.
“We also need to develop effective methods to treat waste that contains PFAS, alongside systems to prevent them from getting into the environment and ways to effectively remove them when they do.”
Dr Julie Schneider, PFAS campaigner at CHEM Trust, commented that the UK standards on drinking water are “outdated and not protective enough.”
She added: “Drinking water is a major source of exposure to PFAS. We must have stringent safety standards for PFAS in drinking water to protect people’s health.
“However, lowering the maximum threshold won’t magically reduce the levels of PFAS in drinking water. First, the UK government must restrict the use and production of all PFAS. Then water treatment facilities will have to be upgraded to filter out as much PFAS as possible.
“It is vital that the UK does not fall behind and is ambitious in providing the necessary data and environmental limits to adequately protect the environment and public health.”
David Carr, Lead Scientific Officer at Dacorum Borough Council and member of the CIEH Environmental Protection Advisory Panel, described PFAS as “an area of increasing concern” particularly for EHPs with the responsibility for regulating land-contamination issues and private drinking water supplies.
He said: “There is acceptance that regulatory regimes across the world are working to catch up with the the presence of these chemicals, but it is vital that the UK does not fall behind and is ambitious in providing the necessary data and environmental limits to adequately protect the environment and public health.”
A Defra spokesperson commented: “PFAS represent a very diverse group of chemicals with a wide range of uses for which safer and more sustainable alternatives are not yet available – making this a very challenging issue to tackle.
“The Department is currently developing a cross-government Chemicals Strategy to frame the work it is doing, which will put the UK on a path for improved chemicals management. We are aiming to publish in 2023.”
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