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North Yorkshire town has UK’s highest concentration of ‘forever chemicals’
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North Yorkshire town has UK’s highest concentration of ‘forever chemicals’

A small North Yorkshire town has been found to have the highest concentration of “forever chemicals” in the UK, it can be revealed.

The market town of Bentham, which is home to 3,000 people and set on the banks of the River Wenning, is also home to the Angus International Safety Group – locally known as Angus Fire – which, since the 1970s, has been producing firefighting foams containing PFAS at a factory near the town centre.

PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and commonly known as forever chemicals owing to their persistence in the environment, are a family of about 10,000 chemicals that have been linked to a wide range of serious illnesses, including certain cancers. They are used in a huge range of consumer products, from frying pans to waterproof coats, but one of their most prolific uses is in firefighting foams.

Angus Fire

The firm has not breached any rules in terms of the PFAS it has produced or tested at its Bentham site, and it stopped testing PFAS foams there in 2022 as the industry prepares for the banning of PFAS foams containing the known carcinogen PFOA in 2025.

However, data obtained by the Ends Report under a series of freedom of information requests and shared with the Guardian, has revealed for the first time that the highest known levels of PFAS contamination in the UK have been recorded in the groundwater on the firm’s Bentham site. Among these chemicals are PFOA and PFOS – forever chemicals with known human health impacts.

Angus Fire has also repeatedly breached its environmental permits, with one permit breached 20 times in the past 10 years. Last year, the firm was warned by the Environment Agency that its permit could be suspended after the regulator found unpermitted discharges of PFAS to the environment in Bentham.

Under its permit, the firm is required to test the soil and groundwater on the site. The results of this testing, obtained by the Ends Report, show that in 2008 the groundwater samples recorded a PFAS sum of 1,199,000 ng/l.

Dr Patrick Byrne, a reader in hydrology and environmental pollution at Liverpool John Moores University, said these were the “highest concentrations of total PFAS that I have ever come across in any environment in England”.

Byrne said it was “particularly concerning” that these samples were from groundwater, rather than raw effluent coming directly from the foam production.

Within this total sum of PFAS was 18,100 ng/l of PFOA and 36,100 ng/l of PFOS. PFOA is categorised as a class one carcinogen, and both substances are now banned.

To put these numbers in context, the government’s environmental quality standard for PFOS – which is intended to protect waters from the harmful effects of contaminants – is 0.65 ng/l – 55,538 times lower than that recorded on the Angus Fire site.

In 2010, groundwater sampling recorded 47,200 ng/l of total PFAS, and 63,400 ng/l was recorded in 2018.

On a separate occasion in 2018, two soil samples were found to have PFOS concentrations of 359,000 ng/kg and 124,000 ng/kg. Samples taken elsewhere for comparison had a PFOS concentration of 300 ng/kg.

These samples were all taken from near Angus Fire’s wastewater lagoons, which until 2020 received contaminated runoff from the PFAS firefighting testing.

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The lagoons are located just off a residential street, metres away from a row of terrace houses.

Residents said foams from the test site used to make their way on to this street. One woman, who lived on it from 1997 to 2016, said her children used to play in the foam.

As the public has become increasingly aware of the danger posed by PFAS chemicals, pressure has mounted on local and public authorities to take action to minimise any harm posed to people.

Water companies test for PFAS in public drinking supplies, but private water supplies are not governed in the same way, with local authorities in charge of regulating them.

In response to concerns raised by a member of the public about drinking water contamination in Lancaster, separate documents obtained for this investigation have revealed that in March last year, Lancaster city council, which neighbours North Yorkshire council, where Bentham is located, launched a “district-wide assessment” of all private drinking water supplies within its remit.

The council said it subsequently took water samples from two private supplies at residences in Tatham, Lancaster, but “did not find any PFAS at these locations”.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We are currently reviewing Angus Fire’s environmental permit in relation to PFAS. We will continue to assess any risks associated with the historic presence of these chemicals, including potential contamination.”

An Angus Fire spokesperson said: “We no longer manufacture or test any PFAS-containing foam products at Bentham, or anywhere else in the world. The business is focused on developing environmentally-friendly products, including JetFoam, the world’s first ever fluorine-free firefighting foam capable of extinguishing aviation fuels.

“We have played a significant role in our local community in North Yorkshire for 100 years, and it’s hugely important for us to maintain our positive relationships with the people of Bentham, and to play a responsible role in village life. As Bentham’s biggest employer, we actively address all concerns related to local environmental impact and compliance. We are committed to continuous improvement in our operations, transparency, and working collaboratively with regulatory bodies to protect public health and the environment.”

Source: theguardian.com