It’s rare in this job that you find yourself personally caught up in the issues that Chemistry World covers. But in February last year, we learned that per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) had been found at above the recommended levels in the drinking water of villages just next door to where my family and I live. Regular readers will be familiar with PFAS – they’re extremely valuable chemicals used to manufacture everything from medicines and waterproof clothing to non-stick cookware. Unfortunately, they’re also extremely persistent in the environment and we’re learning that they are connected to a wide range of health problems even at very low levels.
In my case, the elevated levels of PFAS were a result of historic pollution at Duxford airfield in Cambridgeshire (now a site of the Imperial War Museum) – it’s a common problem at airbases and other military sites where firefighting foams containing perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) are frequently used. The fluoropolymer seeped into the local aquifer and has remained there ever since, refusing to budge. The contamination is a known issue, and one that is managed by mixing the water with uncontaminated water from another source to reduce levels of PFOS to less than 100ng/l, in line with Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) regulations and also World Health Organization provisional guidelines. However, due to blending problems in 2021 in some cases levels of PFOS rose to four times the regulatory limit over a six month period, the DWI’s investigation found.
The issue my local community faces with PFAS pollution is a microcosm of what large parts of the UK – and the world – must now contend with. Consequently, the Royal Society of Chemistry has just launched a campaign to get the government to act on PFAS. It’s calling for tougher limits on PFAS in drinking water – down to 10ng/l for individual PFAS and 100ng/l for a mixture of them. There’s also a map of hotspots of PFAS contamination in the UK (highs of 3690ng/l at Duxford’s water treatment plant in case you’re wondering).
The problem of PFAS is huge and multi-faceted. These compounds help to keep a high-tech economy lubricated and flowing freely. Replacing them is a massive chemical challenge and efforts to tackle it are still in their infancy. But despite their usefulness we, as a society, must face up to their environmental impact, as we did with other persistent organic pollutants. Their future uses must be limited – legislative efforts are already gathering to outlaw them in many jurisdictions around the world. In the meantime, we’re left with a big clean-up operation. One report estimates that retrofitting just UK wastewater plants to deal with PFAS would cost £21 billion. Tackling PFAS is now a job for every level of government, industry and civic society. Time to get started.