Have you been waiting for the day to come when we can say that we have poisoned the entire planet? That day is here. Many people perceive rainwater as something clean and healthy. How many times have you opened your mouth in the rain and drank water from the sky? It used to be a nice way to refresh yourself, but now rainwater is dangerous all over the world, even in Antarctica. Why is rainwater actually harmful? Because it contains PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl chemicals. This follows from a study that was published in Environmental Science & Technology.

What is PFAS?

PFAS are also known as forever chemicals. PFAS is a collective name for per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances or highly fluorinated substances that have a similar chemical structure. PFAS have been produced since roughly the 1950s. The group consists of approximately 5,000 substances that are used in various sectors of industry and in households.

Effects of exposure to PFASs on human health

By European Environment Agency (original image)Mrmw (vectorization) – Original image: Emerging chemical risks in Europe — ‘PFAS’Vectorization: Own work based on: https://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/human/chemicals/emerging-chemical-risks-in-europe/Effectsofexposureinhumanhealthfinal.png

PFAS in rainwater

Research shows that they are so widespread that we can find them everywhere. These harmful chemicals are contained in the atmosphere, in the air, in homes and we are in contact with them every day. In addition to rain, they can even be detected in snow around the world. The study looked at PFAS concentrations in rainwater, soil and surface water samples from around the world. The results revealed that the levels of PFAS greatly exceeded guidelines from the US Environmental Protection Agency Lifetime Drinking Water Health Advisory.

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

“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.”

In drinking water, the level of PFAS has decreased, but in the environment, the level of these dangerous substances has increased sharply. What we might have considered drinking water in nature is no longer drinking water.

“There has been an astonishing decline in guideline values ​​for PFAS in drinking water in the last 20 years,” said Cousins. “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 U.S.”

PFAS are harmful to health and the environment

The report published on Eurekalert states: “All PFAS are either extremely persistent in the environment or break down into extremely persistent PFAS, which has earned them the nickname “forever chemicals.”

PFAS have been associated with a wide range of serious health harms, including cancer, learning and behavioral problems in children, infertility and pregnancy complications, increased cholesterol, and immune system problems.

Dr. Jane Muncke, Managing Director of the Food Packaging Forum Foundation in Zürich, Switzerland, and not involved in the work, points out: “It cannot be that some few benefit economically while polluting the drinking water for millions of others, and causing serious health problems. The vast amounts that it will cost to reduce PFAS in drinking water to levels that are safe based on current scientific understanding need to be paid by the industry producing and using these toxic chemicals. The time to act is now.”

Rainwater is no longer safe to drink

Forever chemicals

“The extreme persistence and continuous global cycling of certain PFAS will lead to the continued excess of the above-mentioned guidelines,” said co-author Professor Martin Scheringer, who works from ETH Zurich in Switzerland and RECETOX, Masaryk University in the Czech Republic.

“So now, due to the global spread of PFAS, environmental media everywhere will exceed environmental quality guidelines designed to protect human health and we can do very little to reduce the PFAS contamination. In other words, it makes sense to define a planetary boundary specifically for PFAS and, as we conclude in the paper, this boundary has now been exceeded.”

Ian T. Cousins, Jana H. Johansson, Matthew E. Salter, Bo Sha, and Martin Scheringer
Environmental Science & Technology Article ASAP
DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.2c02765

Image credit: American Chemical Society, Pixabay.com (featured image)