Rainwater is a hugely important and natural feature of our planet’s ecosystem, it replenishes our ground water sources and it helps fuel access to drinking water in many places. However, a new study by researchers at the University of Stockholm has found harmful chemicals in rainwater, in most locations on the planet.
The study details that those harmful chemicals, named “forever chemicals”, have reached unsafe levels.
What are ‘forever chemicals’?
Forever chemicals are scientifically known as per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). They were given the term because they disintegrate extremely slowly.
The levels of PFAS in rainwater exceed the latest guideline values, researchers say – and new insight into just how toxic these chemicals are to the human body has come to light.
“There has been an astounding decline in guideline values for PFAS in drinking water in the last 20 years,” says Ian Cousins, lead author of the study and professor at the Department of Environmental Science, Stockholm University. For the “cancer-causing perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)”, water guideline values have declined by 37.5 million times in the US.
Water guideline values are used as a general tool to ensure that certain physical and chemical stressors in water do not result in any significant risks to health.
Cousins explains that based on the latest US guidelines for PFOA in drinking water, rainwater everywhere would be deemed unsafe to drink, so that includes the UK.
But what does that mean for us?
Where else are forever chemicals (or PFAS) found?
You can find PFAS chemicals in non-stick and stain-repellent properties. Think items that are found in the average household: food packages, electronics, and even cosmetics and cookware. But these chemicals are now mixing with our rainwater, which make rainwater unsafe to drink. Unfortunately, this is happening all over the world.
How could forever chemicals in rainwater affect our health?
There are a number of health risks that being exposed to these forever chemicals could cause. Scientists say that they could be linked to fertility problems, increased risk of cancer and developmental delays in children – which is of course a cause for concern.
Dr Jane Muncke, managing director of the Food Packing Foundation in Zurich, is calling for something to be done and for tighter restrictions on PFAS.
“It cannot be that some few benefit economically while polluting the drinking water for millions of others, and causing serious health problems,” she said.
“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.”