11th Dec 2023

'Widespread' forever chemicals exposure across Europe

  • Earlier this year, an investigation revealed that there are more than 17,000 sites contaminated by forever chemicals around Europe (Photo: Neil Williamson)
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There is widespread human exposure to so-called 'forever chemicals' — technically known as PFAS — in Europe, with growing hotspots identified in Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Italy, and Denmark, according to the results of Europe's largest-ever biomonitoring programme.

Industrial sites, airports, firefighting training centres, waste disposal facilities, and wastewater treatment plants are identified as the sources of PFAS contamination in these hotspots.

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Forever chemicals earned this nickname because are considered nearly indestructible, accumulating in the environment and human body over time.

The five-year EU-funded programme, European Human Biomonitoring Initiative (HBM4EU), sampled and analysed 1,957 blood samples of teenagers from nine countries to better understand human exposure to these harmful chemicals across Europe.

The results of their investigation concluded that there is a "widespread exposure to PFASs which exceeds health-based guidance values" in the continent — where significantly higher values were recorded in teenagers from northern and western Europe.

Concretely, around 14 percent of the European teenagers in the sample exceeded EU health-related reference values, leaving open the possibility of having adverse health consequences.

Exposure to these forever chemicals can result in detrimental impacts on the immune and reproduction system, thyroid disease, liver damage, and kidney cancer.

Experts found that food intake is one of the primary sources of exposure to PFOS and PFOA — two substances that belong to the PFAS group and have been widely used for water- and oil-resistant products.

There appears to be a correlation between consuming larger quantities of seafood, fish, eggs and offal with higher exposure levels of PFOS and PFNA (similar in function and use to PFOA).

Additionally, the results indicate that men generally have higher concentrations of PFAS than women.

Since PFOA is banned in the EU and the use of PFOS is limited to a few specific applications, a decline in PFOA and PFOS concentrations in humans has been observed over time.

Information gap

But alternative PFASs are still being detected, researchers said, warning that there is still an important gap in information about the potential health impacts on humans from many alternative substances to the regulated PFASs.

Nevertheless, an HBM4EU report concludes that these results indicate "the need for a broad restriction of this group of substances for all nonessential uses," calling for further policy actions such as PFAS action plans.

Earlier this year, an investigation revealed that there are more than 17,000 sites contaminated by forever chemicals around Europe.

Despite the high associated costs, it is not easy to introduce EU-wide restrictions on 4,700 man-made chemicals, which are widely used across dozens of industries to make products such as cookware, food packaging and cosmetics.

In 2019, the Nordic Council estimated that exposure to PFAS cost Europeans up to €84bn annually — but these costs are likely an underestimate, as they are only limited to a range of health effects.

The EU chemical strategy, which was published in 2020, foresees the phase-out of all non-essential uses of PFAS substances in the EU.

But critics argue that it is taking forever to implement an effective ban on these man-made chemicals.

The revision of the REACH regulation, aiming to restrict groups of toxic chemicals instead of assessing substances individually, was initially planned for 2022. But it has been delayed and is now expected by the end of 2023.

Meanwhile, five European countries are already working to restrict non-essential uses of PFAS in the EU. Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden submitted in January a proposal to the EU chemical agency (ECHA) to restrict PFASs in Europe.

Once the six-month consultation is finished in September, responses will be analysed by the ECHA's two scientific committees.

Afterwards, ECHA will provide an opinion on the proposal to the EU Commission — which, in collaboration with member states, will then determine whether to implement a potential restriction.

The proposal will be first voted by member states in the commission's REACH committee, requiring a qualified majority. If the vote is successful, the restriction still will need to receive the green light from the EU parliament and member states.

It is estimated that the proposal could be in place in 2025.

But unless action is urgently taken, it is estimated that about 4.4 million tonnes of PFASs will be released into the environment within the next 30 years.

Last June, MEPs called on the European Commission to come up with a PFAS action plan with "firm deadlines" to ensure the speedy phase-out of the chemicals.

In 2009, the Stockholm Convention agreed to ban PFAS in firefighting foam. Fourteen years later the EU seems to be finally ready to introduce the restriction.

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