Global source water exceeds safe drinking limits of PFAS

News Excerpt:

The University of New South Wales (UNSW) and international partners have published a study revealing alarming levels of contamination of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in source waters worldwide, which is much higher than previously estimated, as published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

About PFAS:

  • There are more than 14,000 chemicals known as PFAS that have been valued for their exceptional properties since the 1950s.
    • These properties include resistance to heat, water, grease, and stains, which has led to their widespread use in a variety of consumer and industrial products.
  • PFAS compounds can be found in everything from non-stick pans and waterproof clothing to cosmetics, insecticides, food packaging, and even firefighting foams.
  • They are called "forever chemicals" because they are persistent and do not easily degrade in the environment or in the human body, leading to long-term ecological and health concerns.

About the study:

  • This comprehensive study, aggregating over 45,000 data points from government reports, databases, and peer-reviewed literature collected over roughly two decades, is the first to quantify the environmental load of PFAS on such a scale.
  • The UNSW experts have provided a pioneering global assessment of PFAS contamination in surface and groundwater sources.
    • Many of the water sources contain PFAS levels that exceed regulatory limits. Though, drinking water is largely safe.
    • PFAS contamination is above 5%, while in some cases the percentage is over 50%.
  • Research has shown that 69% of groundwater samples worldwide, without any known sources of contamination, have exceeded Health Canada's safety benchmarks for drinking water.
    • Additionally, 32% of these samples have surpassed the US's hazard index for drinking water.
  • The researchers found high levels of PFAS in various regions, including Australia, particularly in areas historically exposed to firefighting foams, such as military and fire training facilities.
  • The researchers further aim to deepen the understanding of PFAS pollution by investigating the environmental impact of PFAS compounds in consumer products and developing new technologies to mitigate PFAS in drinking water systems.

What level of PFAS is safe?

  • Two types of PFAS chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, were initially a cause of concern around 20 years ago. Different countries have varying regulations for these chemicals.
  • In the United States, the suggested limit for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water is four nanograms per litre.
  • Australia regulates a different PFAS compound, PFHxS, and has a combined limit for PFOS and PFHxS set at 70 nanograms per litre. PFOA is regulated in Australia at 560 nanograms per litre.
  • Canada caps the total of all 14,000 PFAS compounds at 30 nanograms per litre.
  • There is no consensus as to what level of regulation should be set for PFAS.

Health implications of PFAS:

  • There is still debate about the health effects of these chemicals, and there is no universal agreement on the extent of their risk.
    • A group of health experts in Australia has suggested that there is little to no evidence linking PFAS exposure to significant health impacts.
    • International health organisations in the US and Europe believe that exposure to PFAS can cause a range of negative health effects, including lower birth weights, higher cholesterol levels, kidney problems, thyroid disorders, changes in sex hormone levels, reduced vaccine effectiveness, and an increased risk of liver, kidney, and testicular cancers.
  • In 2023, the World Health Organisation (WHO) classified PFOA, a type of PFAS, as a category one human carcinogen.
  • Furthermore, predictive models are in development to forecast the distribution of PFAS in the environment and their interaction with biological systems.

Way Forward:

  • As this significant research unfolds, there is a need to urge manufacturers and consumers to exercise caution and responsibility in the use of PFAS-containing products. 
  • Also a full assessment on the potential health impacts of PFAS should be done.

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