Pesticide Action Network study highlights widespread PFAS pollution of waterways in Europe

3 Jul 2024 by The Water Diplomat

Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), otherwise referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ are currently present in all European waterways. These are the findings of study  published in early June by the Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN Europe), an NGO that advocates against dependence on synthetic pesticides.

Per- and polyfluoroalkylates are synthetic organic compunds and therefore mamny of them fall into the category of ‘persistent organic pollutants which do not naturally decompose easily and can therefore have long term environmental effects. These persistent organic pollutants are covered under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. The treaty aims to protect human health and the environment from chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods by amongst others restricting the production and use of certain chemicals, reducing releases of these chemicals into the environment, and ensuring that stockpiles or wastes that contain these chemicals are safely managed.  

PFAS are used extensively throughout the world in industry because of their many properties: they are water, grease and dirt repellent, and they are chemically and thermally stable. These products can be found in fire-fighting foams, textiles, waterproofing, paints, paper coatings, plastics, electronics, battery manufacture, heat pumps and waxes.

Currently, 38 of these substances are still  authorised for use in Europe. PFAS are highly toxic to humans and the environment. Although the science of PFAS is still emerging and there are thousands of different chemical compounds to be considered, most of them are considered to be moderately to highly toxic and in humans they are currently associated with thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, liver damage and kidney and testicular cancer.

The study was carried out in 10 European Union countries: Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Croatia, Bulgaria and Sweden. The study involved a set of 23 surface water samples taken from rivers and 6 samples from groundwater sources.  The analyses of the data were carried out by the Karlsruhe Water Technology Centre. In Germany.

The main findings of the document are as follows:

  • All the water samples analyzed contained PFAS, and 98% of the PFAS detected were TFA (the degraded derivatives of PFAS).
  • 79% of samples exceeded the European directive's proposed limit 1 of 500 nanograms per liter of water (levels ranged from 370 nanograms per liter to 3300 nanograms per liter). In Luxembourg, for example, in the Alzette river, the TFA concentration level was 1220 nanograms per liter; in a spring near Dommeldange, the TFA level was just under 1000 nanograms per liter.
  • TFA levels represent the highest known area-wide contamination of water by a man-made chemical, ahead of refrigerants, wastewater or industrial discharges.

Salomé Roynel, PAN Europe’s Advocacy Officer, commented:  "We are dealing with very high levels of contamination, which are poorly monitored. In fact, what we're tending to highlight here is contamination that has remained under the radar, and which is above all contamination that can be described as widespread".

During European Green Week, Alain Maron, Brussels Minister for Climate Transition, who chaired the European Union Council meetings on the environment, added: "We need to move towards a gradual phase-out of their marketing. Quite frankly, I don't see how we can get rid of PFASs other than by stopping producing them in the wild". For his part, Francesco de Lotto of the European Economic and Social Committee added that "we need to adopt a new approach to water ecosystem management, I would say, with a new global policy, because all the components of our society - citizens, farmers and industries - have different objectives and needs, but we need to combine water management into a single approach".

The study concludes by proposing a rapid ban on PFAS pesticides, the implementation of the new hazard classes "persistent, mobile and toxic" (PM) and "very persistent and very mobile" (vPvM) under the EU Pesticides Regulation, the implementation of the general restriction on PFAS under the REACH chemicals regulation, the categorization of PFAS as a "priority substance" under the Water Framework Directive, and finally, setting monitoring obligations and limit values for PFAS.