- For many years, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — or “forever chemicals” — entered the natural environment, contaminating soil and water sources.
- New research from Stockholm University found that the levels of PFAS in rainwater now exceed levels deemed safe by health and environment advisory agencies.
- People should be aware of how PFAS may impact their overall health and take precautions to have their drinking water tested as necessary.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — also known as “forever chemicals” — are a known hazard to global human health.
Because these synthetic chemicals pollute the natural environment, including drinking water, research links PFAS exposure to health issues including liver damage, women’s fertility issues, gestational diabetes, and certain cancers.
Now, a new study from Stockholm University reports the amount of PFAS in rainwater exceeds the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Lifetime Drinking Water Health Advisory levels. Researchers also found rainwater is often above Environmental Quality Standard for Inland European Union Surface Water.
The new study was recently published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
How PFAS end up in drinking water
PFAS was originally developed in the 1940s. Because of their unique properties, including their ability to repel water and oil and being resistant to temperature, manufacturers used PFAS in a variety of different products from non-stick cookware to cosmetics.
When a factory makes or uses PFAS, it can travel through wastewater and contaminate the natural water, soil, and air around it. And over time PFAS-containing items in landfills can leach chemicals into the surrounding environment as well.
When that happens, the chemicals can pollute food grown in the soil or streams and lakes feeding drinking water reservoirs or where the fish we eat live.
Additionally, PFAS are able to travel through the air and become part of the world’s atmosphere, as shown by research finding PFAS in Arctic ice and soil. When this happens, PFAS can travel through rainwater, potentially contaminating water sources around the world.
Dr. Ian Cousins, professor in the department of environmental science at Stockholm University and lead author of this study, told Medical News Today that his research found levels of PFAS in the Earth’s atmosphere have been similar for the last couple of decades.
“They are not declining noticeably because of the high persistence of PFAS and their ability to cycle from the ocean back to the atmosphere,” he explained.
Global differences in regulations
Around the world, different countries and states have different regulations for PFAS in the environment.
For example, in the United States, the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate PFAS and offer a variety of research and tools for states to use. The European Chemicals Agency oversees PFAS use in Europe.
However, some areas of the world, such as Asia, have not yet put restrictions on PFAS in place.
According to Dr. Cousins, the main aim of this study was to demonstrate that health advisories for PFAS have declined to the point that they are no longer achievable in most places on the planet.
“We’ve been trying to point out the concerns with highly persistent synthetic chemicals in multiple previous articles—these concerns are often dismissed,” he said.
“Persistent chemicals are particularly problematic because their persistence allows them to become globally distributed and it means that they are impossible to remove once they are globally ubiquitous. If one then discovers effects associated with these chemicals then you have a serious environmental problem.”
— Dr. Ian Cousins
When asked if there was a way to stop the global cycling of PFAS so it no longer affects the atmosphere and ultimately drinking water sources, Dr. Cousins said there was no solution as of yet.
“We can only clean the drinking water in the treatment plants using advanced treatment technologies which are very expensive,” he explained. “We cannot remove PFAS from the environment. We just have to wait, and it will take a very long time — of the order of decades to centuries — for PFAS to gradually dilute into the deep oceans.”
“This research points out the problem and hopefully decision makers globally will now take the problem seriously and not continually manufacture and use such extremely persistent substances,” Dr. Cousins added. “We have to minimize the uses of PFAS going forward, and stop the continued use of problematic PFAS in China.”
Resolving the PFAS problem
Despite these doom-and-gloom facts, efforts are underway to help solve the PFAS problem at a quicker rate.
Researchers are currently looking for ways to break down PFAS in the environment. A study earlier this year found a common microorganism was able to break down a particular class of PFAS. A study in June 2021 also showed how an ion exchange process can help eliminate PFAS in wastewater.
Researchers are also exploring the use of activated charcoal as an option for removing PFAS from drinking water.
Additionally, governments are beginning to take more action against PFAS. In June, the United States government announced plans to combat PFAS in American drinking water. Various states have enacted their own regulations on the use of PFAS.
In 2019, the European Commission also unveiled a proposal to eliminate PFAS chemicals to be effective by 2030.
PFAS and health risks
As PFAS will continue to be in the environment for some time, clinicians agreed it is important for people to understand how these “forever chemicals” may impact their health.
According to Dr. Perry Elizabeth Sheffield, co-director of the NYS Children’s Environmental Health Centers network, associate professor in the Departments of Environmental Medicine and Public Health and Pediatrics at Mount Sinai, and deputy director of the Region 2 Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU), exposure to PFAS through drinking water has been linked to a higher risk of some negative health outcomes.
“PFAS exposure is linked to higher cholesterol, changes in liver function, lower immune system response—like how well we develop immunity when we get a vaccine—higher risk of kidney and testicular cancer, and complications during pregnancy like higher blood pressure and pre-eclampsia,” she explained.
“While we think children, in particular, may be sensitive to negative health effects if exposed because they are still growing and developing, more information is needed,” she added.
To learn more about how PFAS impacts their health, Dr. Sheffield suggested people review New York State Children’s Environmental Health Centers webpage on PFAS and a clinical tool called Prescription for Prevention they developed about PFAS.
If people worry their drinking water may be unsafe to consume, Dr. Monique May, family medicine practitioner and medical director at UnitedHealth Group, suggested they can ask their local water utility company for information about PFAS levels in the water supply.
“If not, they can request that the water be tested,” said, adding: “They can also invest in water filters. If they have concerns that they have been exposed they should seek out a physician with training and expertise in environmental medicine to determine if blood or other testing is needed.”
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