Person holding chemicals

‘Forever chemicals’ found in thousands of sites across UK and Europe

Mapping project shows forever chemicals have spiralled out of control in UK and Europe, posing a threat to human health, marine and animal life
09 March 2023 , Steve Smethurst

Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee says monitoring must be improved, stating that not a single river in England is free of chemical contamination

A mapping project by European journalists has revealed high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at thousands of sites across Europe and the UK. Also known as ‘forever chemicals’, PFAS are found in a wide range of cleaning and non-stick products, and take their alternative name by stubbornly remaining in the environment. There is also evidence to suggest they build up in the human body and may be toxic.

Two PFAS in particular – perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) have been linked to health problems: PFOA with kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol and pregnancy-induced hypertension; and PFOS with reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, and thyroid disease.

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

Dr Julie Schneider, PFAS campaigner at CHEM Trust said: “This study demonstrates how severely our environment has been contaminated. PFAS pollution has been left to spiral out of control and it is not acceptable. The production and use of all PFAS must be fully restricted, and the UK’s ambition should be nothing less than achieving a PFAS-free economy within the next decade.” 

Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, said that PFAS posed “a severe threat to human health, marine and animal life”.

She said: “The UK’s chemical pollution limits are nowhere near international standards, and water companies’ claims that blending chemicals with other sources to dilute the pollutants simply won’t wash. The government urgently needs to get a grip on this chemical crisis.”

“It was disappointing the government did not accept the committee’s recommendations in the toxic chemicals report it made in 2019, and in the water quality in rivers report of 2022.”

Her views were echoed by Philip Dunne MP, the Conservative Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, who said: “Monitoring for these persistent pollutants absolutely must be improved if we have any hope in turning the tide: not a single river in England has received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination.”

He added: “It was disappointing the government did not accept the committee’s recommendations in the toxic chemicals report it made in 2019, and in the water quality in rivers report of 2022, that a UK-wide survey be undertaken to understand better the chemicals we are being exposed to in everyday life.”

Professor Ian Cousins, an environmental scientist at Stockholm University, described the situation as ‘concerning’. He said: “We can’t do much to reverse the contamination and will just have to wait many years for levels to drop below the guideline levels. In the meantime, we will have to hope for the best that we don’t observe widespread effects on human health. It’s not a very good position to be in and we must learn from this disaster going forward.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “UK drinking water standards are of a very high standard, 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.

“Since the 2000s we have taken action to increase monitoring and support a ban on highly restricting specific PFAS both domestically and internationally.”


Image credit: Shutterstock

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