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Gaps may be left in toxic forever chemical regulation reforms warn nature experts

4 April 2023

Environment experts have welcomed recommendations for grouping forever chemicals in proposals today, but are warning that there is still a risk that the proposed changes may not go far enough in addressing the invisible impact of Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) on our waters, wildlife and public health. They say a much wider phase-out of PFAS and a shift to a PFAS free economy, is needed to tackle the harmful impact on wildlife and human health.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Environment Agency have today published a regulatory management options analysis (RMOA) – on their recommendations for UK-wide changes to PFAS regulation. Proposals include a phase-out of many PFAS, focusing on the most persistent and most widely-used, and new official standards on PFAS for drinking water. However there’s a risk that the Government may only take forward a piecemeal scattered approach, which could potentially mean some harmful PFAS fall through the gaps.

Environmentalists think a far wider phase out of PFAS is needed, moving towards an entirely PFAS-free economy. Campaigners want the UK to take a tough approach that is similar to new proposals from five EEA countries to phase-out 10,000 PFAS in the EU, and match strict new EU proposed standards on levels of PFAS deemed safe in rivers. And they urge that official drinking water standards should be much tougher than current voluntary standards, and look at multiple PFAS in combination.

Hannah Conway, Chemical Policy Officer at Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “With forever chemicals there is only prevention, there is no cure. Once they are released into the environment these substances are extremely difficult to remove, which is why it’s so vital that updated PFAS regulations and the UK Chemicals Strategy provide the sea-change needed on this and other harmful chemicals. While today’s recommendations include welcome moves there could be gaps in protections that still leave some PFAS slipping through the cracks - polluting our rivers and wildlife. A total PFAS phase-out is the only remedy to help put the health of our waters and nature back on track. ”

Thalie Martini, CEO of Breast Cancer UK, said: “The options analysis shows a step in the right direction but does not, ultimately, go far enough. Human exposure to forever chemicals remains much higher than we believe is safe, creating an increased risk of breast cancer. We have to understand that we are surrounded by these chemicals and it is almost impossible to live a life without encountering them. This creates a different cocktail effect for each individual, something which is almost impossible to measure and properly mitigate. The only way to truly lower our risk is to remove as many of these chemicals as we can and move towards a complete phasing out in the near future, as countries across Europe are starting to do.”

Dr Rob Collins, Director of Policy and Science at the Rivers Trust, said:“PFAS are just one group of toxic chemicals lurking beneath the surface of our waters. The cumulative impact of the chemical cocktail in our rivers and seas is exacting a heavy price for our natural world. Species like seals, whales and otters are facing lower survival rates, and increased disease as a result. If the Government is serious about restoring the health of our waters it must improve on the measures proposed today, including a complete phase-out of PFAS use, and deliver an ambitious UK Chemicals Strategy.”

Joe Wilkins, Head of Campaigns at UK Youth For Nature said: Young people in the UK want a future where the water we and other species drink and swim in is not polluted with invisible chemicals. We also want to know that the products we are using today do not hinder the possibility of this future. Today’s proposals are welcome, but we want them to go further as part of an ambitious UK Chemicals Strategy that makes the UK a leader on this issue and tackles the combination of pesticides, PFAS and other chemical pollutants hiding in our waters.”

PFAS are a group of more than ten thousand chemicals, used mainly to make materials heat, water, flame or stain resistant. These substances are widely used in consumer and industrial products, from furniture and carpets to non-stick pans, paints, pesticides and pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, toiletries, and food packaging. They are nicknamed forever chemicals, as they are incredibly persistent, degrading slowly over generations. They are also extremely hard to remove once in the environment. Many PFAS have been widely linked to harmful impacts on wildlife and human health, including damage to the liver and immune system, and increasing risk of certain types of cancer, such as breast cancer.

There is particular concern over the impact PFAS pollution is having on our rivers, ocean and the wildlife that live in them. No UK river (0%) passes good chemical status and PFOS (the only PFAS chemical monitored for in wildlife samples) was responsible for almost half (46%) of failures using biota sampling. Recent Rivers Trust and Wildlife and Countryside Link analysis found that at least 77% of English river sites where forever chemicals have been found would fail proposed new EU safety levels, with many over 5 times the limit. But this could be just the tip of the PFAS pollution iceberg as official monitoring data only covers a handful of PFAS chemicals and not all rivers are tested, so actual pollution levels could be much worse. Wildlife including insects and fish are affected by some PFAS and other persistent chemicals, building up in the foodchain to impact on predators like otters, porpoises, whales and seals.

Environmentalists are urging Government to get tough on forever chemicals and the wider chemical cocktail in our environment in its response to today’s PFAS RMOA, and in its forthcoming UK Chemicals strategy, by:- Phasing out PFAS and other harmful chemicals from all but the most vital uses.- Regulating chemicals in groups (where all similarly structured chemicals are restricted if one is found harmful, preventing the easy replacement of one damaging chemical with another).- Addressing the chemical cocktail effect in our rivers and ocean, routinely monitoring for known dangerous combinations of cocktails and requiring chemical cocktail safety assessments for new chemicals to the market.- Delivering comprehensive monitoring, that improves on current patchy sampling, including through increased funding for the Environment Agency’s river monitoring programme.


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