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PFAS Contamination in the UK: What are the 'Forever Chemicals'?

In this article we’ll explore what PFAS actually are. We’ll also look at the scale of the issue in the UK, and what can be done about it.
Green News
2023-03-03T00:00:00.000Z
en-gb
scientist holding beaker with chemicals inside

PFAS have been in the news a lot recently and it seems that they’re finding these ‘forever chemicals’ everywhere. From the most remote corners of the world, to the fish in our lakes, and even our own blood, we can’t seem to escape them. But just how much of a problem are they? 

👉 In this article we’ll explore what PFAS actually are. We’ll also look at the scale of the issue in the UK, and what can be done about it. 

First up, what are PFAS?

PFAS are not new, even if we’re only just starting to hear about them in the mainstream media.  They’ve actually been around since the 1940s. Short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS are a group of over 4,700 synthetic chemicals that have been used in commercial production for around eighty years. 

PFAS are used to make nonstick cookware (like teflon), water repellent clothing and items, stain resistant fabrics, cosmetics, firefighting foams, and other products designed to resist grease, water and oil such as pizza boxes and take-out containers. 

These widely used, long lasting chemicals break down very slowly over time - some take as long as 1000 years to degrade, which is why they’re known as ‘forever chemicals’. This is why they’re so problematic, because even if the item in which they’re found breaks down, PFAS are often left behind and impact our environment for years and years to come. 
remote snowy mountain view

PFAS and human health

❗️ Relatively little is known about the health impact of PFAS, but from the ones that have been studied in depth, a link between the chemicals and harm to both human and animal health has been found. 

The two most notorious and widely studied PFAS are PFOA (ie. the teflon chemical) and PFOS (an ingredient in Scotchguard). Studies have linked these PFAS to health issues such as cancer, infertility, weakened immunity, increased cholesterol, endocrine disruption and low birth weight. 

There is an often quoted statistic that PFAS are found in the blood of around 99% of humans. This figure comes from the US, however similar studies in the UK and other countries around the world show that nearly everyone has some form of PFAS in their body. This is because we’re exposed to them on an almost daily basis from products that contain PFAS, and also via environmental exposure.

The length of time that PFAS stays in the body depends on the particular chemical, some may break down over a few days, while others take years, there are even some that are bioaccumulative which means they build up in the body over time and exposure. 

This may all sound pretty terrifying, and it absolutely is cause for concern, however, it should be noted that health impacts from exposure to low-level PFAS are inconclusive. While studies do suggest some health implications for the average person, as of yet the link is not as strong as those who worked in PFAS manufacturing, or lived near manufacturing facilities. 

woman waiting in hospital corridor

PFAS and the environment

Even though we can’t see PFAS with the naked eye, they are there - in fact they’re everywhere. Scientists have found PFAS in the remote Arctic, in our rivers and lakes, and even on the highest mountain in the world - Mount Everest!

This is problematic because PFAS have the potential to not only harm animals who are exposed, but they are also absorbed by plants and water, which means that PFAS enter our own food systems. And since it can take as long as 1000 years for some PFAS to degrade, they’re going to be an issue for years to come. 

view of Mount Everest

How do PFAS enter the environment?

Every stage of a PFAS lifecycle presents the risk of it entering into our environment. They can be released into the environment during chemical manufacture, when it is added to the final product, they can also be transferred during product use, for example from the food packaging onto the food, as the rain washes off the waterproof layer on our shoes, and even from the wax that we use on skis and surfboards. Even after the products enter our landfill or recycling facilities, they may leak into the environment to be carried away by the wind, or in water sources such as streams and rivers. 

The distance travelled by some PFAS is shocking, and the ease with which they are transported around our environment means that even the hardest to reach corners of the earth are affected. 
woman cooking with teflon pan on induction stove

How bad is the problem in the UK?

Water

The Environmental Agency (EA) has detected PFAS in surface water samples taken in the UK, with the two most harmful (PFOA and PFOS) being detected in 96% of samples. This means that 100% of England’s rivers will fail the Water Framework Directive’s criteria of ‘good chemical status’ for decades to come. 

This is hugely problematic because it means that PFAS can enter into our drinking water system. Traditional drinking water treatment technology is currently unable to completely remove PFAS from the water. 

Air

The UK’s Environmental Agency doesn't routinely test for PFAS in the air, therefore their presence in the air in the UK remains unknown. However, we do know that PFAS are routinely released into the air and are capable of travelling huge distances, and have been found in even the most remote and isolated of places. 

PFAS in the air may be inhaled by humans or animals, and may also enter our food and water systems after being deposited into our ecosystem. 

Soil

PFAS in the air and water can easily end up deposited into the UK’s soil. As it stands the EA doesn’t monitor their presence there, however it’s likely that PFAS can be found in soil samples across the whole of the UK. 

Another area of particular concern when it comes to soil is the addition of sewage sludge which can be used for soil improvement or as fertiliser. This is also currently not assessed for the presence of PFAS.

Animals and humans

Given the likely presence of PFAS throughout the UK’s ecosystem, it’s therefore unsurprising that PFAS can be found in both animals and humans across the UK. A recent study found PFAS in the blood of teenagers of all nine EU countries who took part in the study, it’s no stretch to think that the results would be exactly the same in the UK. Even more concerning is that 14% of the samples exceeded EU Food and Safety Authority standards.

people walking across pedestrian crossing in city

PFAS monitoring in the UK

As we’ve seen in the section above, there are huge gaps when it comes to the monitoring of PFAS in the UK. Limited data means that assessing the risk from PFAS in the UK is challenging. 

The UK’s Environmental Agency did however announce additional monitoring programmes in 2021, and will now expand its sampling to include: groundwater, surface water, freshwater fish, marine life, landfill leachate, and wastewater treatment work sludge.

UK PFAS regulation

The use of PFAS is not widely regulated, in the UK or elsewhere. There are over 4,700 different PFAS, however, only two of these are routinely regulated. 

The two most notorious PFAS - ie. perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) - have been restricted in the UK through UK REACH (the regulatory framework for registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals). 

However, no other PFAS are regulated. This, combined with the gaps in monitoring PFAS levels in the UK, and the unclear link to health impacts, presents a worrying situation. 

PFAS RMOA

At the end of 2021, the UK Government called on the Health and Safety Executive (a UK Government agency), and the Environmental Agency to prepare a regulatory management options analysis (RMOA) for PFAS. A call for evidence was issued asking for information and research regarding PFAS manufacture, import, risk profile, use, exposure, environmental fate, waste, disposal options, recycling opportunities, legislation and standards. 

The aim of the RMOA is to assess the risks presented to the UK by PFAS and to produce recommendations to help protect the UK population and environment from such risks.

test tubes filled with plant samples

Can we remove PFAS from the environment?

Unfortunately there are very limited methods for removing PFAS from the environment or our bodies. Essentially once they’re there, well, they’re there to stay (until they eventually break down). However, it is hoped that technological advancements will be able to offer solutions to help remove PFAS from our water supplies. While this may not completely solve the issues, it would go a long way in reducing human exposure to these forever chemicals.  

Current water treatment plants are limited in their ability to dilute or remove PFAS, however, reverse osmosis, ion-exchange resins, and granular activated carbon are capable of trapping PFAS and may be able to remove as much as 90% of PFAS from our water supplies. For the time being, these are the best methods we’ve got. 

👀 Looking forward

Even with global production of PFAS being limited, their levels in the environment are not decreasing. Called forever chemicals for a reason, these compounds can take hundreds and hundreds of years to degrade, which means they’re constantly accumulating in our environment. 

Given their strong presence in the human population the world over, and their concerning links to a variety of health issues, PFAS are a growing issue that governments around the world need to address. 

The UK is currently waiting on the outcome of the PFAS RMOA (regulatory management options analysis), which it hopes will lead to the introduction of stronger regulations when it comes to PFAS.

What about Greenly?

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If you enjoyed this article, check out our legislation tracker to discover what frameworks, regulations and guidelines apply to your business and industry.

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