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Rainwater Worldwide Now Unsafe to Drink Due to PFAS

Published: 2022-08-02 - Updated: 2023-01-04
Author: Green Science Policy Institute - Contact: greensciencepolicy.org
Peer-Reviewed: Yes
Journal Reference: DOI Link to the Study Paper
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On This Page: Summary - Defining Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) - Main Article - About/Author

Synopsis: From Antarctica to the Tibetan Plateau rainwater is now unsafe to drink due to Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) define a new planetary boundary for novel entities that has been exceeded. During the last 20 years, guideline values for PFAS in drinking water, surface waters, and soils have decreased dramatically due to new insights into their toxicity. Based on the latest U.S. guidelines for PFOA in drinking water, rainwater everywhere would be judged unsafe to drink. Although we don't often drink rainwater in the industrial world, many people around the world expect it to be safe to drink, and it supplies many of our drinking water sources.

Definition

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are various human-made chemicals used in consumer and industrial products. For example, they keep food from sticking to packaging or cookware, make clothes and carpets resistant to stains, and create more effective firefighting foam. PFAS are used in aerospace, automotive, construction, and electronics industries. PFOS, PFOA, and other PFASs persist in the environment and are commonly described as persistent organic pollutants, also known as "forever chemicals." PFAS in the soil, water, or air can be absorbed by plants and animals, leading to contaminated foods. According to the OECD, at least 4,730 distinct PFASs are known with at least three perfluorinated carbon atoms. A United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) toxicity database, DSSTox, lists 10776 PFASs.

Main Digest

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are hazardous chemicals spread globally in the atmosphere. As a result, they can be found in the rainwater and snow in even the most remote locations on Earth. During the last 20 years, guideline values for PFAS in drinking water, surface waters, and soils have decreased dramatically due to new insights into their toxicity. As a result, the levels in environmental media are now ubiquitously above guideline levels.

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A perspective article by researchers from Stockholm University and ETH Zurich published in Environmental Science & Technology suggests that PFAS define a new planetary boundary for novel entities that has been exceeded.

"There has been an astounding decline in guideline values for PFAS in drinking water in the last 20 years. 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 U.S." said Ian Cousins, the lead author of the study and professor at the Department of Environmental Science, Stockholm University.

"Based on the latest U.S. 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," Cousins continued.

The Stockholm University team has conducted laboratory and field work on the atmospheric presence and transport of PFAS for the past decade. They have noted that the levels of some harmful PFAS in the atmosphere are not declining notably despite their phase out by the major manufacturer, 3M, already two decades ago.

PFAS are highly persistent, but their continued presence in the atmosphere is also due to their properties and natural processes that continually cycle PFAS back to the atmosphere from the surface environment. One important natural cycling process for PFAS is the transport from seawater to marine air by sea spray aerosols, which is another active research area for the Stockholm University team.

"The extreme persistence and continual global cycling of certain PFAS will lead to the continued exceedance of the guidelines mentioned above," said Professor Martin Scheringer, a co-author of the study based at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and RECETOX, Masaryk University in the Czech Republic.

"So now, due to the global spread of PFAS, environmental media everywhere will exceed environmental quality guidelines designed to protect human health, and we can do very little to reduce the PFAS contamination. In other words, it makes sense to define a planetary boundary specifically for PFAS and, as we conclude in the paper, this boundary has now been exceeded," said Scheringer.

Article continues below image.
Illustration showing the effects of Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) on human male and female health. Sources: US National Toxicology Program, (2016); C8 Health Project Reports, (2012); WHO IARC, (2017); Barry et al., (2013); Fenton et al., (2009); and White et al., (2011).
Illustration showing the effects of Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) on human male and female health. Sources: US National Toxicology Program, (2016); C8 Health Project Reports, (2012); WHO IARC, (2017); Barry et al., (2013); Fenton et al., (2009); and White et al., (2011).
Continued...

PFAS are Harmful to Health and the Environment

PFAS is a collective name for per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances or highly fluorinated substances with a similar chemical structure. All PFAS are either extremely persistent in the environment or break down into extremely persistent PFAS, which has earned them the nickname "forever chemicals."

PFAS have been associated with a wide range of serious health harms, including cancer, learning and behavioral 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 Z├╝rich, Switzerland, and not involved in the work, points out:

"It cannot be that some few benefit economically while polluting the drinking water for millions of others and causing serious health problems. The vast amounts it will cost to reduce PFAS in drinking water to safe levels based on current scientific understanding need to be paid by the industry producing and using these toxic chemicals. The time to act is now."

Attribution/Source(s):

This peer reviewed article relating to our Disability and Climate Change section was selected for publishing by the editors of Disabled World due to its likely interest to our disability community readers. Though the content may have been edited for style, clarity, or length, the article "Rainwater Worldwide Now Unsafe to Drink Due to PFAS" was originally written by Green Science Policy Institute, and published by Disabled-World.com on 2022-08-02 (Updated: 2023-01-04). Should you require further information or clarification, Green Science Policy Institute can be contacted at greensciencepolicy.org. Disabled World makes no warranties or representations in connection therewith.

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Cite This Page (APA): Green Science Policy Institute. (2022, August 2). Rainwater Worldwide Now Unsafe to Drink Due to PFAS. Disabled World. Retrieved September 22, 2023 from www.disabled-world.com/disability/emergency/climate/pfas-rainwater.php

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