There are seventeen landfills located in England that contain toxic liquids which pose a risk to the safety of drinking water.
Seventeen landfills across England are known to be producing a highly toxic liquid substance containing some banned and potentially carcinogenic “forever chemicals”, in some cases at levels 260 times higher than that deemed safe for drinking water, it can be revealed.
The government claims to be unaware of the locations of these landfills.
Between 2021 and 2022, consultants hired by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Environment Agency were tasked with collecting samples from multiple active and inactive landfills built between the 1960s and present day. The goal was to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the chemical substances present in the landfills’ leachate.
The findings from the sampling, which were reported in an Ends Report investigation and also shared with the Guardian, indicate that in a single landfill, the combined amount of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) found in the untreated leachate sample was 105,910 nanograms per liter (ng/L).
PFAS are a group of about 10,000 human-made chemicals used in industrial processes, firefighting foams and consumer products. They are known as “forever chemicals” owing to their persistence in the environment.
In England, there are no limitations on the overall amount of PFAS permitted in drinking water. However, the guidelines set by the Drinking Water Inspectorate allow for levels of PFOS and PFOA, which are two commonly used and extensively researched types of PFAS, to be present in drinking water at a maximum of 100 ng/l. In the US, the legal limits for PFOA and PFOS are 0.004 ng/l and 0.02 ng/l, respectively.
In a single instance, PFOA was measured at 26,900 ng/l, which is 260 times greater than the recommended safe threshold for drinking water in England.
PFOA is deemed harmful when present in excessive amounts and has been associated with various illnesses in humans such as kidney cancer, testicular cancer, high blood pressure, thyroid disorder, ulcerative colitis, elevated cholesterol levels, and decreased effectiveness of vaccines.
The Environment Agency defines landfill leachate as a liquid that has the potential to pollute. If not properly managed and released back into the environment in a controlled manner, it could harm the groundwater and surface water surrounding a landfill site.
The amounts of PFAS detected in each sample differed, ranging from 79 ng/l to an average of 19,497 ng/l across all samples.
The information given to Ends about the excessive amounts of PFAS in the leachate from the landfill did not contain any location details, making it impossible to determine their potential impact on sources of drinking water.
When queried, the Environment Agency and Defra said they did not know the locations of these landfills because the contractors provided the government with an anonymised dataset.
According to the researchers, the aim of the study was to create a preliminary overview of substances found in landfill leachate in England that may pose a threat to the environment. They clarified that their study was not intended to fulfill regulatory compliance monitoring requirements.
According to a representative from the Environment Agency, none of the landfills examined were found to be directly releasing this leachate into the environment. They also mentioned that the agency is collaborating with the landfill industry to gain a better understanding of chemicals and their potential impact.
“This is a hugely important study that is now informing our longer-term approach to managing risks to the environment. Defra will be publishing a report in due course.
The Environment Agency aims to offer the government highly persuasive guidance, backed by solid evidence, regarding the extent of the PFAS issue and potential solutions. While this initial study is valuable, further research is necessary.
This study is not meant for regulatory monitoring. Therefore, the contractor who conducted the work on our behalf did not need to provide names and site locations.
The acknowledgement that Defra and the Environment Agency are unaware of the exact locations of landfills has alarmed specialists. Dr Shubhi Sharma, a scientific research assistant for the advocacy group Chem Trust, expressed deep concern over the fact that the Environment Agency is not aware of the landfills where high levels of PFAS have been detected in leachate.
“How can the Environment Agency and other organizations take action to address the pollution of nearby groundwater and soil if the source is unknown? According to her, it is important for workers, residents, and businesses in the area to be informed if their surroundings are contaminated with harmful chemicals.”
Penelope Gane, the leader of the practice at Fish Legal, expressed surprise that the Environment Agency has not taken action in response to PFAS readings that are hundreds of times above safe drinking limits. She questions why the agency has not approached their contractors to determine the location of these sites.
Although it is not feasible to identify the exact locations of the 17 troublesome landfills, there are several known ways in which landfill leachate can cause pollution, as recognized by environmental specialists.
The survey focused on operational landfills that receive household and commercial waste. These sites have containment systems in place to prevent leachate from contaminating the ground or groundwater.
According to the Environment Agency’s guidance, even the most well-designed landfill sites will experience some level of leakage. The agency also acknowledges that while these sites may be able to effectively contain and manage leachate with minimal leakage, there is always a chance of engineering failures occurring.
Closed landfills have raised concerns due to the possibility of pollution. These sites often lack measures to contain leachate or gas and have incomplete records of the waste’s origin, composition, and quantity.
As per Kate Spencer, a professor specializing in environmental geochemistry at Queen Mary University, unlined landfills are likely contaminating the environment with chemicals through leaching.
Spencer emphasized the importance of considering the potential for human interaction with the concentrations in these landfills when evaluating their risk. However, this requires understanding the specific pathways involved.
She expressed concern if one of the sites is a historical unlined site near groundwater or a river that serves as a drinking water source.