Rainwater Is No Longer Safe to Drink and We Need to Start Talking About Whose Fault It Is

pfas forever chemicals water australia

When OutKast sang “If what they say is ‘nothing is forever’ / then what makes, then what makes, then what makes/ love the exception?” on their 2003 smash hit ‘Hey Ya’, they should really have substituted ‘love’ here for ‘PFASs’… Or maybe it wouldn’t have been so catchy. And now for the bad stuff.

A new study has found that, basically, most water on Earth is no longer safe to drink. This is because of the prevalence of something called PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” that are “now ubiquitously above guideline levels” across the entire planet. PFAS are chemicals used in manufacturing that are known to cause cancer and, because of lax environmental protection laws, have seeped into all ecosystems on Earth. They’re called Forever Chemicals because, unlike love, they never break down. Like ever. Like ever, ever.

The news comes from a new study released by a team of researchers at Stockholm University and ETH Zurich who have been looking into the prevalence of PFAS in the global water supply. They’ve been conducting laboratory and fieldwork across the globe to sample water supplies in some of the most remote areas of the planet and have found levels of these chemicals that are above the safe consumption level for humans pretty much everywhere.

Ian Cousins, the lead author of the study and professor at the Department of Environmental Science at Stockholm University, said that “Based on the latest US guidelines for PFOA in drinking water, rainwater everywhere would be judged unsafe to drink”.

“Although in the industrial world we don’t often drink rainwater, many people around the world expect it to be safe to drink and it supplies many of our drinking water sources.”

It’s frightening stuff, but instead of being depressed about it, we argue you should be channelling that anger into something productive while protecting yourself from this industrial fallout. Here’s how.

What Are PFAS?

PFAS stands for ‘perfluorinated and polyfluoroinated alkyl substances’. This mouthful is a class of chemicals made up of between 4,730 and 10,776 individual chemical structures, many of which are known to be toxic to humans. They are characterised by a fluorine-carbon structure, known to be one of the strongest bonds in all of organic chemistry.

They’ve been used in manufacturing since the 1940s and, because they are so damn useful, are currently used in everything for their water-resistant properties. Some common items in your home that are likely made using PFASs include stain-resistant furniture, water-repellent clothing, cosmetics, paint, pizza boxes, popcorn bags and many other water-resistant products. Famously, Teflon, the stuff used to coat non-stick frying pans, is a PFAS.

Firefighters are frequently exposed to PFAS as the foam used in quenching blazes contains many of them. So too are those involved in the manufacture of ski and snowboard equipment, given they’re coated in water-resistant plastics.

The problem is, they don’t stay put. They break free from the products we put them into and get into the water supply, disseminated around the world through the water system, into the oceans, and into the air through seaspray. They accumulate in animals, including and especially the ones we eat, and return to the environment unharmed and unchanged. A 2007 study found that PFASs could be detected in the bloodstream of 96% of Americans.

PFAS have been linked to a wide range of health problems including high cholesterol, pregnancy complications and foetal development, learning and behavioural problems in children, infertility, thyroid disease, and pancreatic, liver, and kidney cancer. Great.

It is worth noting however that many of the studies conducted on PFAS have yet to identify exact pathways of effect for the chemicals and, as such, we can’t definitively say that ‘this PFAS causes this medical condition,’ only that there seems to be a correlation between their presence and health issues.

Whose Fault Is It?

The reason these chemicals have been allowed to proliferate is because governments around the world have consistently lowered the “safe” level of these chemicals in our water supply and in industrial waste.

“There has been an astounding decline in guideline values for PFAS in drinking water in the last 20 years. For example, the drinking water guideline value for one well-known substance in the PFAS class, namely the cancer-causing perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), has declined by 37.5 million times in the US,” Cousins said.

Two companies can sort of be pointed at for the initial usage and proliferation of PFAS. Those are DuPont, inventors of Teflon, and 3M, a global manufacturing giant based in the US. The latter makes everything from sticky tape to the N95 masks used to protect against COVID. You’ve almost certainly got some of their products at home.

According to reporting from The Intercept, 3M knew as early as the 1970s that PFAS accumulate in human blood and that their own experiments on animals in 2001 concluded that they “should be regarded as toxic.”

3M decided to stop using PFAS in their manufacturing in the early 2000s and governments and industries have been phasing them out over the last few decades. Of course, given their ‘forever’ nature, they’re not going to be disappearing from our environment anytime soon.

There Is Hope

Scientists, when they’re not creating nuclear weapons or trying to resurrect the Tasmanian tiger, are the bee’s knees. On August 18, a group of researchers demonstrated that this is the case by publishing a paper called Low-temperature Mineralization of Perfluorocarboxylic Acids. According to The Conversation, this paper outlined “how one class of PFAS can be broken down into mostly harmless components using sodium hydroxide, or lye, an inexpensive compound used in soap.”

However, while this is a positive development, a ton more research on this issue needs to be done. “The reality of the situation is that there is really no magic solution right now,” Tasha Stoiber, a senior-level scientist at the Environmental Working Group, told The New York Times. She also stated that we have to recognise “just how difficult the problem is” and turn “off the tap so that we don’t make it any worse.”

Meanwhile, What Can We Do About It?

Several class action lawsuits have been levied against DuPoint and 3M over the last decade by Americans who have had their drinking water contaminated by PFAS near these companies’ manufacturing plants. The state of Minnesota settled a lawsuit against 3M in 2018 for US $850 million. It’s certainly one option, and one that residents in Australia have also undertaken.

In Australia, the government has long been concerned about the presence of PFAS. A governmental panel was established in 2017 to examine the health impacts of the chemicals and a report was submitted in 2021 by The Australian National University.

The report found that people living in regions where Australian Defence Forces had used PFAS on military bases had elevated levels of the chemicals in their blood supply. This was the case in three sites near Katherine in the Northern Territory, Oakey in Queensland, and Williamstown in New South Wales. A map of all the contamination sites in Australia can be found here.

At the last budget, the government allocated $23 million for the cleanup of PFAS at commercial airports while a multi-million-dollar mega facility opened in Katherine earlier this year to treat the local water.

However, according to the government, “no maximum limits have been set for PFAS contaminants in food by Australian regulators nor internationally”.

“Consequently there are no current restrictions on domestic or international trade in agricultural or aquaculture products”.

While this might sound scary, the National Health and Medical Research Council, who establish safe drinking water levels in Australia, say there’s nothing to worry about.

Although “low concentrations of PFAS have been reported in water supplies not impacted by contaminated sites … these are unlikely to be of human health concern,” they write.

“A study of drinking water collected from 34 sampling locations around Australia found that levels of PFOS and PFOA were not quantifiable in approximately half the samples.”

In addition, the Department of Health writes that the food supply is generally safe and that there are markers for PFAS in meat production that should prevent PFAS from entering the market.

“Dietary exposure to PFAS from the general food supply is likely to be low as the majority of samples in studies reported in Australia and elsewhere did not detect these chemicals in testing,” they write.

If you’re still concerned, the best advice would be to get rid of non-stick pots and pans, get an activated charcoal water filter for your drinking water, and use products that don’t contain PFAS. Although levels may be low, we know that PFAS bioaccumulate in humans and animals and that a build-up could lead to health issues down the line.

People who rely on rainwater or on bore water in contaminated areas are the most at risk and these people should get their water tested for PFAS. Outside of that demographic, the rest of us probably have to limit our consumption as much as possible and hope that the government is right when they say that there’s little here to worry about.

Related: In an Aussie First, a Federal Environment Minister Might Reject a Coal Mine.

Related: 5 Grim Takeaways From Australia’s Most Important Report on Our Environment’s Health.

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