A group of chemicals has worked their way into countless aspects of our lives. They are there in the coating of many non-stick frying pans, in food packaging, water-resistant paints, waterproof clothing, and cosmetics.

This group is called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Some might know of them from the film Dark Water, which features a landmark legal fight which took place in the United States, when one of them, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), leaked into Mid-Ohio Valley water from its manufacturers.

PFAS are what have been described as “forever chemicals” because the bonds within them are so strong they don’t biodegrade. That flash in the frying pan could linger for a century in the environment. A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the earth’s hips.

We don’t know yet what impact all of the over 400 chemicals in this group have on human and other life, but an epidemiological study of 69,000 people in the Mid-Ohio Valley who drank water contaminated with high levels of PFOA for at least one year linked exposure to the chemical to high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular and kidney cancers, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

The US National Toxicology Program in 2016 found there was a “high level of evidence” that the chemicals PFOA and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) suppress antibody response, based on animal testing. Laboratory animal studies have found that PFAS can cause damage to the liver, birth defects, delayed development, and newborn deaths.

PFOA was banned globally under the Stockholm Convention in 2019. But it’s one of only two PFAS (the other being PFOS) that have been regulated globally. CHEM Trust, a charity campaigning against harmful chemicals, estimated that “at the current rate of regulation, it would take over 40,000 years to regulate all of the PFAS chemicals one by one”.

They are not just “forever chemicals”, but also everywhere chemicals. They have been found in our blood, breast milk, Arctic Ice, even in rainwater. Once in the environment no widescale method is known for removing them – therefore the only option is stopping them at source.

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The EU Chemical’s Strategy contains a commitment to restrict the most harmful chemicals, including PFAS, to only essential use. The US state of Maine will ban most uses of PFAS from 2030. Yet the UK has no approach to tackling the PFAS problem, and, as environmental news site ENDS Report put it, awareness of PFAS, in the UK is “unusually low”.

There is also no routine monitoring of PFAS in our drinking water, though we know from a UK-wide study that included 22 Scottish rivers, that there are PFAS in our waters. Based on average results, ten of the 22 sewage work effluent sites monitored by SEPA were above the environmental quality standard threshold water concentration for PFOS.

The Scottish environmental charity, Fidra, did a study, published last year, analysing 20 food packaging samples bought in the UK. They found PFAS were present in 95 percent of samples tested. Some of these chemicals are even found in high levels in compostable takeaway containers. The problem here is not just that they will leach into the food that we eat from that packaging, but that they will go on to contaminate compost, linger in our soil and, as studies have shown, be absorbed by the fruit and vegetables we grow in it.

As a result of Fidra’s research and petition, 5 out of 10 major UK supermarkets are taking voluntary action to reduce or remove PFAS from own brand food packaging, and one, Morrisons, is aiming to be PFAS-free by the end of 2021.

But what’s clear, as Fidra and many other organisations have pointed out, is that voluntary action and consumer pressure is not enough. Given the range of these chemicals and their ubiquity, UK legislation is necessary. Earlier this year, a group of 27 NGOS wrote to the UK Government with 12 asks for the UK Chemicals Strategy. Among them was, “Phase out the use of PFAS and other very persistent chemicals.”

Every day that passes, more arrive in our waters, soil and air. Enough already. Too much already.

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