The UK’s safe level for tap water for PFAS chemicals is too high, claimed a recent report by the BBC. The BBC took 45 tap water samples and had them analysed in a laboratory. The analysis found that almost half of the samples contained PFAS chemicals and 10 percent of the samples had readings that exceeded 10 nanograms per litre.
None exceeded the UK level of 100ng/l though – a limit that compared to European protection standards is remarkably high and perhaps challenges the myths of better UK chemical regulations post Brexit. Half of all the UK samples exceeded the European Food Standards Agency limit of 2.2ng/l.
Guidelines from the UK Drinking Water Inspectorate state drinking water must contain PFAS chemicals at no more than 100 nanograms per litre (ng/l). Though they are considering revising this down to 70ng/l.
To emphasise this vital point, the European standard for this health concern is 2.2.ng/l. The UK standard is 100ng/l.
Chemicals in our water supply
The BBC study follows on the recent evidence of high levels of PFAS chemicals found in Cambridgeshire water supply in February this year. Over 1,000 people were not informed that they had been exposed to levels of PFOS that were four times the regulatory limit, or 400ng/l. When set against the European limit of 2.2ng/l, this Cambridge reading is remarkable.
To add to the residents’ anger at this lack of information, it was then revealed that Cambridge City Council had known about this supply of excessive PFOS pollution almost a week before the customers had. Cambridge Water is adamant that the polluted water did not reach customers’ taps, though an investigation is ongoing.
What about here in Yorkshire? Like most water companies, Yorkshire Water provides customers with an opportunity to check what is in their water supply. But what is remarkably conspicuous by its absence, is the lack of reference to PFAS chemicals. Yorkshire Water refer to the Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 2016, which do not specify PFAS at all. As there is no regulatory requirement to test for PFAS chemicals, the water company relies on the Environment Agency to do this for them.
What are PFAS chemicals?
For those unaware of PFAS chemicals and their omnipresent status:
“PFAS (Per or poly-fluorinated alkyl substances) are a group of over 4,700 industrial chemicals, many of which are linked to major environmental and human health concerns. PFAS are used in a wide range of consumer products from food packaging to stain-resistant textiles, non-stick cookware and cleaning products, and are now widely reported in drinking water, wildlife and human blood serum. PFAS are persistent and are often referred to as forever chemicals.”
The Environment Agency’s own PFAS report from 2021, states rather bluntly that, “Our monitoring data in rivers, lakes, groundwaters, estuaries and coastal waters between 2014 and 2019 suggests that PFAS is likely to be widely present in English surface waters and groundwaters”. It continues in these bleak terms by highlighting that, “Detectable levels of PFOS are found at over 99% of surface water sites sampled and detectable levels of PFOA at over 99% of freshwater sites and over 96% of estuarine and coastal sites sampled”.
The most concerning aspect of the report is the admission that “there are gaps in our understanding of the potential for release during their life cycle”. If the Environment Agency cannot give the full information on PFAS pollution, then members of the public, whose safety is at stake, are being led blindly.
PFAS chemicals, are sometimes known as ‘forever chemicals’, as they do not break down in the environment. This is a serious issue in terms of continuing pollution, as the Environment Agency’s report makes clear: “Even if sources of PFAS to the environment are stopped, environmental concentrations will decline very slowly.”
Removing PFAS chemicals from the water supply
In the US, where awareness of PFAS chemicals is much further ahead than in the UK, there have been developments in removing PFAS from water supplies. One method is to, “include treatment with activated carbon, ion exchange resins, or high-pressure membranes. Filtering water through tanks containing granular activated carbon (GAC) is the most common practice”.
However, there are two problems with this approach. Firstly, the spent GAC needs to heated to temperatures of 1300°C and secondly, the filters have to be properly disposed of in a hazardous waste landfill. Landfill sites can be a source of pollution, so this simply moves the problem from one place to another.
The second method that is also used at present is a “single-use treatment with positively charged anion exchange resins (AER)”. These can remove negatively charged contaminants such as PFAS. Again though, this treatment is costly and is a temporary decontamination process only. Developing effective, economically viable destruction technologies is the only way to truly extinguish the threats posed by PFAS.
Nanofiltration is also considered an effective method for homeowners, but would end up leaving high-strength concentrated waste that would have to be managed.
Who is responsible for monitoring chemicals in our water?
The Environment Agency points directly to the various water companies around the country as being responsible for identifying risks and sampling the drinking water, and suggested that any concerns should be directed at the water companies. After all, consumers pay bills to the water companies to have a safe supply, so the contract (and complaint) would be with them and not the Environment Agency. It informed me:
“Water companies are responsible for identifying risks and sampling the drinking water supply, including the detection of PFAS. The Drinking Water Inspectorate has provided guidance on concentrations of PFOS and PFOA in drinking water since 2009 and has recently written to water companies, introducing additional requirements for sampling, testing and monitoring for PFAS in raw water sources from which abstractions are used for drinking water.”
But if water companies are not monitoring for PFAS chemicals – as can be seen from water quality reports which does not mention them, even though they are aware of the long-lasting toxicity and harm of these chemicals – then questions need to be asked of them.
Stopping PFAS at source
Dr Julie Schneider of the chemicals charity Chem Trust, said: “People have the right to know if the water from their tap is contaminated with these harmful chemicals. We urgently need a full assessment of PFAS contamination in drinking water in the UK.”
She told me that, “Regarding PFAS pollution, we’re at a stage where clearly the urgency is to stop the pollution, stop adding more PFAS into the environment and the best way to achieve this is by banning the use of all PFAS”.
UK Water Industry Research recently published a cost analysis report where they recommended that, “source control must be the most important way of reducing PFAS into the environment”. They also noted that, “if the water industry is asked to remove PFOS and other PFAS, it will require an investment of tens of billions of pounds”.
The concern here could be that customer bills may be raised by water companies to remove toxic chemicals harmful to humans. Which is odd, as consumers have already paid significant amounts to have safe drinking water. It seems peculiar that customers would be asked to pay the price, again, for ensuring that drinking water is safe.
Yorkshire Water was contacted for an up-to-date comment on PFAS chemicals, but has not yet responded.