Most Rainwater on Earth Contains PFAS Exceeding Safe Levels, Study Finds
New research from Stockholm University shows that PFAS in rainwater around the world are exceeding safe levels. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are chemical pollutants, often called “forever chemicals” present in many everyday items, like food packaging and clothing. The chemicals leach into the environment, affecting everything from the air we breathe to even rainfall.
The study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, tested four selected perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs): perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS), and perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA) in rainwater, soil, and surface waters in different locations globally.
The researchers concluded that PFOA and PFOS levels in rainwater “greatly exceed” the Lifetime Drinking Water Health Advisory levels from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The study also noted that all four of the tested PFAAs in rainwater were often above the Danish drinking water limits, and PFOS levels were usually higher than the Environmental Quality Standard for Inland European Union Surface Water.
Rainwater wasn’t the only problem, either. “Atmospheric deposition also leads to global soils being ubiquitously contaminated and to be often above proposed Dutch guideline values,” the study said.
As such, the authors said there is really no way to avoid these chemicals on Earth anymore.
“We argue here that we’re not within this safe operating space anymore, because we now have these chemicals everywhere, and these safety advisories, we can’t achieve them anymore,” said Ian Cousins, lead author of the study and professor at Stockholm University. “I’m not saying that we’re all going to die of these effects. But we’re in a place now where you can’t live anywhere on the planet, and be sure that the environment is safe.”
PFAS earned the name “forever chemicals” due to their inability to break down in the environment. The CDC noted that these pollutants move through soils and waters in the environment and can bioaccumulate in wildlife. Humans can also breathe in PFAS, and the pollutants can also get into the bloodstream.
While more studies on the effects of PFAS on human health are needed, existing studies suggest there could be links between “forever chemicals” and certain types of cancer, reproductivity issues and developmental delays.
Scientists are concerned that the increasing amounts of PFAS in drinking water could show an increase in health complications in the future, though.
“In this background rain, the levels are higher than those environmental quality criteria already. So that means that over time, we are going to get a statistically significant impact of those chemicals on human health,” Crispin Halsall, a professor at the University of Lancaster who was not involved with the study, told the BBC. “And how that will manifest itself? I’m not sure but it’s going come out over time, because we’re exceeding those concentrations which are going to cause some harm, because of exposure to humans in their drinking water.”
Some governments are creating more relaxed PFAS limits as well. With the prominence of PFAS, strict limits on PFAS levels have halted construction projects, leading some places to loosen the guidelines to avoid impacting economic activities.
The other option is to remove these pervasive pollutants from water and soil. Current methods of removing PFAS are expensive, although some scientists are developing sustainable, low-cost ways to remove PFAS from the environment.