Harmful chemicals have been identified in 17 of England’s 18 sources of drinking water, new evidence indicates.
The Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) has detected 11,853 samples of water that contain potentially harmful forever chemicals.
Otherwise known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), forever chemicals are human-made substances that are used in industrial processes, consumer products, and firefighting foams.
Previous studies have found that some PFAS are associated with a higher risk of fertility problems, cancer, and thyroid disease.
“The dangers of PFAS have become a growing concern due to their persistence in the environment, ability to accumulate in the human body, and potential health effects,” said the DWI.
PFOS contamination risk is ranked into three categories, with the highest tier requiring immediate action.
According to the researchers, PFOS was detected in untreated water at 18 times the tier 3 100ng/l limit for drinking water.
Experts have identified 73 raw water samples above the maximum DWI limits at five of Affinity Water’s sites.
In addition, the scientists detected 22 raw samples above the limit from two Anglian Water groundwater sources.
The DWI said: “These high concentrations never made it to people’s taps because the contaminated water is blended with another source to bring the levels down.
“However, given there has been a lag between production of PFAS – some have been manufactured for decades – and the water sector being required to test for them, it is likely that some people will have consumed high levels of PFAS in tap water.”
Stephanie Metzger, policy adviser at the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), said: “The report shows that there are people who are drinking medium-risk water.”
“We don’t think anyone should be drinking medium-risk water. The toxicology data shows the risk of health effects becoming more over time as PFAS builds up in our body.”
Dr. David Megson, forensic environmental scientist from Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “Our guideline values for PFAS in drinking water are not as stringent as other countries, yet it is still a challenge for water companies to provide water with PFAS levels below these limits.
“Ultimately, it is water companies and consumers who are picking up the bill to try to manage these contaminated supplies, not the polluters. Urgent action and investment is required.”
Scientists at the RSC are now pushing for more regulation on monitoring PFAS. They want to create a chemicals agency to deal with PFAS and other contaminants.
Metzger said: “There are so many PFAS out there, and we are only testing for 47, and there are so many information gaps.
“There could be more PFAS out there we are exposed to. There needs to be more broad testing.”
Dr Clare Cavers, from the environmental charity Fidra, said: “The findings are extremely alarming, in particular as the acceptable limit set by the DWI for the banned toxic forever chemical PFOS is much higher than in other parts of the world.
“With a recent study finding that PFOS can pass to children in the womb, [it] is gravely concerning.”
She added: “The levels of PFOS detected in these samples from England water companies are especially worrying because PFOS restrictions have been in place for over a decade, and meanwhile, other forever chemicals with similar or greater toxicity continue to be used widely and to accumulate around us.
“The persistence, bio-accumulation, and toxic properties of PFAS, with some lasting thousands of years in the environment, mean the pollution we cause today will last for generations to come.”
A spokesperson from Water UK said: “Companies adhere to high standards set by regulators, with virtually all samples meeting their strict tests.”