The World Health Organization has determined that the presence of a “forever chemical” in English tap water samples is carcinogenic.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified a substance discovered in numerous drinking water samples throughout England as carcinogenic.
This decision will intensify the UK government’s obligation to address the issue of “persistent chemicals”.
PFOA, a member of the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) family, is one of thousands of chemicals commonly found in products such as cosmetics, clothing, food packaging, and industrial processes. Along with another PFAS chemical, PFOS, PFOA has been mostly prohibited but still persists in the environment due to its long-lasting nature. Research has shown a connection between the PFAS family and various health issues, including cancer, weakened immune systems, reproductive complications, and developmental effects in children. These chemicals are not easily broken down by the body and can accumulate over time in both humans and animals.
PFOA has been linked to cancer for some time but a growing body of evidence means it has now been upgraded to “category one”, which means it is “carcinogenic to humans”, according to the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
According to a recent report by the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI), around 12,000 samples collected from drinking water sources contain at least one type of PFAS.
The greatest amount of PFOA found in a drinking water supply was 149 nanograms per liter (ng/l), which is 1.5 times the maximum allowed limit set by the DWI for tap water. PFOS, which the IARC has classified as a “potential carcinogen,” was detected at levels up to 1,869ng/l, but it is likely that these levels were reduced before reaching a tap.
Watershed Investigations analyzed data from the Environment Agency and water companies and found that PFOA was present in nearly 1,000 sampled drinking water sources from 2006 to 2022. Additionally, tap water samples from various locations in England revealed PFOA in over half of the 45 samples taken. However, the levels were below 10ng/l and considered “low risk” by the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI).
In the beginning of this year, the Guardian and Watershed Investigations discovered that a chemicals company’s waste flowing into a protected river in Lancashire had “exceptionally high amounts” of PFOA.
The government has been criticized for delaying action on PFAS, unlike the EU, which is contemplating stricter regulation for over 10,000 substances.
The UK falls short of the EU’s drinking water regulations, with the Drinking Water Inspectorate permitting levels of up to 100ng/l for PFOA and PFOS. In comparison, the EU has a limit of 100ng/l for the total of 20 PFAS. Denmark has set a stricter limit of 2ng/l for four specific PFAS, while the US Environmental Protection Agency has suggested removing limits on certain ones, allowing levels of up to 4ng/l.
Dr. Patrick Byrne, a professor at Liverpool John Moores University, stated that the Royal Society of Chemistry has urged the government to lower the permitted level of individual PFAS, specifically PFOA, in drinking water from 100ng/l to 10ng/l. This recommendation is in line with other countries, like the US, which is proposing a maximum acceptable concentration of 4ng/l for PFOA.
“In order to safeguard our drinking water and our health, it is essential that UK laws and environmental guidelines are continually updated in accordance with current scientific and medical findings.”
Hannah Evans, a representative of the chemical organization Fidra, expressed great concern over the categorizations and emphasized the pressing need for regulatory measures regarding PFAS. She stressed the importance of learning from past instances of PFOS and PFOA and swiftly transitioning to a PFAS-free economy.
According to Philippe Grandjean, a professor and head of environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark, PFAS chemicals can be passed from a pregnant mother to her fetus through the placenta. These chemicals are also present in breast milk, which can result in high levels of exposure for breastfed infants. This exposure can lead to health issues such as elevated cholesterol and impaired glucose metabolism. Additionally, the immune system can be negatively affected, potentially impacting the body’s ability to fight off infections and remove abnormal cells that could contribute to cancer development.
A representative from Defra stated that the quality of drinking water in England is exceptionally high and ranks among the top in the world. Water companies must conduct routine risk assessments and sampling for any substances, such as PFAS, that could potentially pose a health risk through the water supply.
The government is currently working to evaluate the presence of PFAS in the environment, identify their origins, and determine potential hazards in order to inform future policies and regulations.