More than 17,000 sites across Europe and the UK are contaminated by dangerous forever chemicals, a new investigation has revealed.
These toxic artificial substances - also known as per-and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, or PFAs - are extremely persistent and don’t break down in the natural environment.
They have been linked to a variety of health conditions - and, according to the Forever Pollution Project, they’re everywhere.
The collaborative investigation detected PFAS at high concentrations of more than 1,000 nanograms a litre of water at about 640 sites. At 300 sites, PFAS levels exceeded 10,000ng/l.
For reference, Denmark’s Environmental Protection Agency stipulates that drinking water must not contain more than 2ng/l.
The results are extremely concerning, said Phil Brown, a health sciences professor at Boston’s Northeastern University. Brown helped to coordinate the research for LeMonde and the Guardian, the news outlets that led the investigation.
"It's a necessary and frightening result," he said.
Overall, the investigators deemed 2,100 sites hotspots - places where contamination reaches levels that are hazardous to human health.
What are forever chemicals?
There are more than 4,700 forever chemicals on the market. They’re non-stick and stain-repellent - making them common ingredients in everything from cookware to clothing to fire-fighting foam.
But the substances take a toll on human health.
The chemicals have been linked to a massive array of health issues. These include, but are not limited to, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, cancer, and decreased response to vaccines.
Where are forever chemicals found in Europe?
The Forever Pollution Project is a collaborative investigation by 18 European newsrooms, led by France’s Le Monde and the Guardian.
The chemicals are everywhere, but some hotspots are worse than others.
Belgium has the highest level of pollution. Zwijndrecht, Flanders - home to a PFAS manufacturing site - recorded concentrations of up to 73 million nanograms per litre. This is 36.5 million times the recommended level.
Residents in surrounding areas have been told to avoid homegrown vegetables and eggs laid in their gardens.
70,000 people living within five kilometres of the plant have been offered a blood test to look for the presence of PFAS.
The full map is available here.
Other studies have also discovered the chemicals in human blood, fish, plants, breast milk, drinking water, soil, and embryos.
What can we do about forever chemicals?
The chemicals are very difficult to clean up.
“The cost of remediation will likely reach the tens of billions of Euros. In several places, the authorities have already given up and decided to keep the toxic chemicals in the ground, because it’s not possible to clean them up,” the Forever Pollution project warns.
Most experts believe the best solution is regulation to prevent them from entering the environment in the first place.
Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark - all of which have strong internal rules on PFAS - have jointly submitted a proposal to have the toxic substances restricted throughout the EU.
"With PFAS, we have a problematic group of substances,” says Steffi Lemke, Germany’s Federal Environment minister.
“That`s why I think that this group of substances should be reviewed quite fundamentally and the dangerous substances should be taken off the market and banned."