According to the recently released study on water quality, even in the most remote parts of the world, the level of so-called “forever chemicals” in the atmosphere has become so high that rainwater is no longer ‘unsafe to drink’.
Forever Chemicals is a group of man-made hazardous substances known as PFAS, which stands for perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances, some of which have been linked to human cancer.
In recent decades, they have spread around the world via waterways, oceans, soil and the atmosphere and as a result, are now found in rainwater and even snow. In the most remote places on Earth, from Antarctica to the Tibetan Plateau, researchers have found.
Guideline values for PFAS in drinking water, surface waters and soils have been revised dramatically due to a greater understanding of their toxicity and the threats they pose to health and the natural world.
The changes mean the levels of these chemicals in rainwater “are now ubiquitously above guideline levels”, according to researchers from Stockholm University and ETH Zurich university.
“For example, the drinking water guideline value for one well-known substance in the PFAS class, namely the cancer-causing perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), has declined by 37.5 million times in the US.”
He added: “Based on the latest US guidelines for PFOA in drinking water, rainwater everywhere would be judged unsafe to drink.“
“Although in the industrial world we don’t often drink rainwater, many people around the world expect it to be safe to drink and it supplies many of our drinking water sources,” Professor Cousins said.
To study the diffusion of these chemicals, the Stockholm University team has spent the past decade working on the presence and atmospheric transport of PFAS at the laboratory and field levels.
They have found that the levels of some harmful PFAS in the atmosphere are not declining notably despite their phase out by the significant manufacturer, 3M, already two decades ago.
The research team noted that PFAS is associated with many serious health problems, including cancer, learning and behaviour problems in children, infertility and pregnancy complications, increased cholesterol and immune system problems.
Dr Jane Muncke, managing director of the Food Packaging Forum Foundation in Zurich, who was not involved in the research, said: “It cannot be that some few benefits economically while polluting the drinking water for millions of others, and causing serious health problems.“
The vast amounts that it will cost to reduce PFAS in drinking water to levels that are safe based on current scientific understanding need to be paid by the industry producing and using these toxic chemicals. The time to act is now.”