Experts say they are “extremely alarmed” by the detection of potentially toxic “forever chemicals” in the drinking water sources at 17 of 18 England’s water companies.
The potentially toxic “forever chemicals” – many of which have been banned – have been linked to cancers, fertility problems, developmental defects in unborn children, immune system and thyroid problems.
The Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) said “forever chemicals” were found in 11,853 samples of raw and treated water tested by water companies last year, as revealed by the Guardian and Watershed Investigations.
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) is a chemical family consisting of at least 5,000 individual substances, including PFOS and PFOA. They are sometimes referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ because of their persistence in the environment.
PFAS are human-made chemicals widely used across industry for their durability and efficacy in processes and found in the manufacture of vast numbers of consumer products – including food packaging, skin creams, cosmetics, polishes and textile treatments – and firefighting foams. Their properties make them highly resistant to biodegradation earning them the “forever chemicals”.
Forever chemicals can pass to children in the womb
The DWI said the “dangers of PFAS have become a growing concern due to their persistence in the environment, ability to accumulate in the human body, and potential health effects.”
Responding to the findings, Dr Clare Cavers from Fidra – an environmental charity supporting sustainability and preventing pollution – called them “extremely alarming, in particular as the acceptable limit set by the DWI for the banned toxic forever chemical PFOS is much higher than in other parts of the world”.
Cavers added: “With a recent study finding that PFOS can pass to children in the womb, [it] is gravely concerning.”
Policy adviser at the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), Stephanie Metzger, said: “The report shows that there are people who are drinking medium-risk water.”
Metzger added: “We don’t think anyone should be drinking medium-risk water … the toxicology data shows the risk of health effects becoming more over time as PFAS builds up in our body.”
The RSC is calling for more monitoring and broader testing along with the establishment of a chemicals agency to scrutinize pollutants and PFAS.
Manchester Metropolitan University forensic environmental scientist Dr David Megson, said: “Our guideline values for PFAS in drinking water are not as stringent as other countries, yet it is still a challenge for water companies to provide water with PFAS levels below these limits.
“Ultimately it is water companies and consumers who are picking up the bill to try to manage these contaminated supplies, not the polluters. Urgent action and investment is required.”
Billpayers to pay for £100 million campaign to reduce water demand
Meanwhile, the chief executive of Ofwat has said billpayers will foot the bill for a £100 million national campaign to get people to use less water.
A fifth of the UK’s water supply is currently lost by leaking pipes.
Head of the regulator David Black told MPs on Monday: “We’re establishing a fund of £100 million for the next price review period which will be from customers to help the sector get to a much better place on water demand.
“We haven’t seen progress from the sector in the current period nor in the previous period. The government set challenging targets, we think the sector needs to rise to the challenge of delivering on that.”
Climate change and a growing population are adding to pressures on Britain’s water supply. Reserves are becoming more stressed with water suppliers and the government both wanting to reduce demand in order to protect the continuity of supply.
As such, the government wants water companies to fix leaks which account for 20% of the total supply. Furthermore, they are looking to cut consumption from an average 144 litres per day per person to 122 litres by 2038 and 110 litres by 2050. Demand is expected to grow by four billion litres a day by 2050 requiring new reservoirs and water recycling schemes to meet the needs.
Black told MPs that cutting demand will be “cheaper than the alternatives of building major new sources of supply” with a new reservoir costing “perhaps £2 billion or more”.
According to Ofwat, reducing water use can save UK households up to £500 per year. The £100 million public information campaign fund to reduce water demand – to be paid by billpayers – is set to begin in April 2025.