Filling up a glass with clean drinking water from kitchen faucet (Credits: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) is calling on the government to overhaul its drinking water standards to tackle the risk of ‘forever chemicals’, a group of substances that have been linked to numerous health issues including cancer, liver damage and developmental defects in unborn children.
PFAS – commonly known as forever chemicals because they do not break down – enter water courses through industrial discharges and household waste, such as when clothing or non-stick frying pans begin to disintegrate.
Under current regulations, UK drinking water can have up to 100 nanograms of PFAS per litre before a water company has to take action.
But the RSC is calling on the government to reduce this cap to 10 nanograms per litre for 47 types of PFAS and 100 nanograms for the overall summed concentration of all PFAS.
The organisation said Britain’s thresholds for PFAS in drinking water are currently far more lenient than those in other leading economies.
It comes after a new analysis of data from the Forever Pollution Project showed that 35% and 37% of English and Welsh water courses that were tested contain levels of PFOS and PFOA that would be considered a medium or high risk if found in drinking water.
Non-stick frying pans are a common source of forever chemicals (Picture: Getty)
The RSC is arguing for a ‘precautionary approach’ after it calculated that a safe level per litre per day in drinking water could be 22 nanograms of a combination of PFAS.
The UK Committee on Toxicity, which advises the government, has reservations about the evidence base behind these calculations and is undertaking its own evaluation of safe levels.
However, the RSC said this could be an expensive and lengthy process.
‘We believe that we need to take a precautionary approach even if there is any scientific uncertainty still,’ said Stephanie Metzger, policy adviser at the RSC.
‘So while we welcome the further review of the data by the UK Committee on Toxicity, we also think that we still need to act now based on the evidence that we do have.’
David Megson, a senior environmental chemist at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: ‘As we start to understand more, we’re finding that more and more PFAS are displaying these adverse health effects.
‘So there are thousands of these things in the environment, they’re not going away anytime soon and they are causing damage to us so we need to find a way to manage them effectively.’
Water companies are required to test for 47 different types of PFAS in drinking water, sending samples to the government’s Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI).
The RSC said this means water firms are adhering to current standards but there is no requirement to publish the data so it is impossible to know the level of PFAS in drinking water within the existing limits.
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson said: ‘Drinking water standards in England are of an exceptionally high standard and are among the best in the world.’
‘Forever chemicals’ are found everywhere.