The UK government must get a grip on the scale of “forever chemicals” polluting rivers and seas and threatening human and animal health, the Green MP Caroline Lucas has said.
The Guardian has revealed that high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as forever chemicals, have been found at thousands of sites across the UK and Europe in a major mapping project.
The map shows drinking water sources in the UK have been contaminated with PFAS. Water companies say the pollutants do not make it into the final tap water because they are blended with another source to dilute the chemicals, or they undergo a specialised treatment process to be removed.
But Caroline Lucas, the MP for Brighton Pavilion, said: “A cocktail of toxic persistent chemicals is polluting our rivers and seas, infecting our food and water supply, and posing a severe threat to human health, marine and animal life. Yet the UK’s chemical pollution limits are nowhere near international standards, and water companies’ claims that blending chemicals with other sources to dilute the pollutants simply won’t wash.
“The government urgently needs to get a grip on this chemical crisis and adopt tougher regulations now.”
Data obtained from water companies and the Environment Agency by the Guardian and Watershed shows that since 2006 about 120 samples of drinking water sources have been found to contain concentrations of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) or perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), collectively known as PFAS, at above the 100ng/l level. This is the level at which the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) guidelines say water companies should take action to reduce the concentrations before supplying people’s homes. Until 2009, the DWI guideline limit was much higher, at 3,000ng/l. The guideline limits for PFAS in drinking water are much lower in the US.
Forever chemicals are one of the reasons no river in England passes biological and chemical pollution tests.
Philip Dunne, the Conservative chair of the environmental audit committee, led an inquiry into river water quality that concluded a chemical cocktail of pollutants was pouring into waterways. His committee has called on ministers to carry out a UK-wide survey to understand better the chemicals we are being exposed to in everyday life.
“The stark fact is that we are blind to the harmful pollutants coursing through our waterways because they are simply not being routinely monitored,” said Dunne. “Monitoring for these persistent pollutants absolutely must be improved if we have any hope in turning the tide: not a single river in England has received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination.”
He added: “It was disappointing the government did not accept the committee’s recommendations in the toxic chemicals report it made in 2019, and in the water quality in rivers report of 2022, that a UK-wide survey be undertaken to understand better the chemicals we are being exposed to in everyday life. I trust the government’s current work to address water quality will prioritise the systematic monitoring of forever chemicals.”
In a tweet, Mary Creagh, who previously chaired the Commons’ environmental audit committee, said: “Everything we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves. Environmental pollution causes huge damage to human health.”
The dangers of PFAS are widely known in the US, thanks in part to the pioneering work of the lawyer Rob Bilott, who was played by Mark Ruffalo in the 2019 film about this subject, Dark Waters. On Friday, he tweeted about the revelations.