Scientists fear the permissible levels of toxic PFAS – known as the “eternal chemicals” – in UK drinking water may be too high.
A BBC study found that PFAS levels exceeded European safe levels in almost half of the samples taken. However, none exceeded the UK’s current safety level.
Chemicals are found in many products such as non-stick pans, food wraps, carpets, furniture, fire fighting foam.
They have been linked to a range of diseases, including cancer.
Guidelines from the UK Drinking Water Inspectorate state that drinking water must contain PFAS chemicals at a maximum of 100 nanograms per liter (ng/l). Beyond that, measures must be taken to reduce the levels.
In collaboration with the University of Greenwich, the BBC took 45 tap water samples. Laboratory analysis revealed that none exceeded the level of 100 ng/l.
But 25 samples contained PFAS and four had levels above 10ng/l, which under current guidelines means local healthcare professionals should be consulted and levels monitored.
And nearly half of the samples exceeded the European Food Standards Agency’s tolerable limit of 2.2 ng/l.
Professor Roger Klein, chemist and PFAS expert, said: “The importance of your results, even if they are small, is that they underline that this product is everywhere and that it is in drinking water. .
“It is ridiculous that the UK Drinking Water Inspectorate has a level of 100 ng/l before action is taken.”
Rita Lock-Caruso, a professor of toxicology at the University of Michigan, also said the results raised a potential health issue: “We’re seeing health effects at lower and lower concentrations – in the single digits.”
Research has found that the most common PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, have probable links to high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
The effect on children is of particular concern. Professor Philippe Grandjean, from Harvard University, said: “A woman can accumulate this in her body and when she becomes pregnant she shares this with her fetus. She eliminates some of her body burden in her milk. So the next generation will get a huge dose, and the baby may end up having up to 10 times more PFAS in their blood than their mother.”
The United States plans to reduce its regulatory level by 70 ng/l.
“We are starting to think there is no such thing as a safe level and we want them to be as low as possible because water is not the only source of exposure,” said the former director of the National Institute of Environmental Sciences, Linda Birnbaum. .
However, there is little public data on its presence or impacts in the UK.
Some residents of the Channel Island of Jersey believe they are suffering adverse health effects from drinking water contaminated with PFAS.
In the 1990s, the government of Jersey discovered that PFAS had polluted the St Ouen’s Bay aquifer, which was used by locals for drinking water.
After years of local lobbying, the Jersey government recently agreed to offer free blood tests to people with medical conditions in the area.
“I have an autoimmune disease, my dad has kidney disease and my mom has thyroid disease,” says Sarah Simon, a lifelong Jersey resident turned citizen scientist.
“When I started talking to our neighbors I found out that a lot of the men had kidney stones and the women had thyroid disease. It can’t be a coincidence.”
Both PFOS and PFOA have been restricted and neither is currently manufactured in the UK. However, there are still a host of other PFASs that are still in use and are unregulated.
The BBC study found 18 different types of PFAS chemicals in tap water samples.
In a statement, the Department for Environment, Agriculture and Rural Affairs said: “We have robust systems in place to identify the impact of a range of chemicals on the environment and health. and are working closely with regulators to better assess the presence of PFAS in our natural environment and their sources.”