This morning, on Thursday 23 February, a number of European newspapers published the findings of the cross-border monthslong investigation Forever Pollution Project that focuses on the “forever chemicals,” a popular term for the approximately 10,000 substances collectively known as PFAS. The Project charts the 17,000 European locations that are contaminated with PFAS on a map, and reveals an additional 22,000 locations that are also likely to be contaminated with PFAS due to current or past industrial activity. Read an interview on the investigation’s findings with Ian Cousins, Professor at the Department of Environmental Science, who recently welcomed the European Chemicals Agency’s proposal for an EU-wide ban on PFAS and who also contributed to the Forever Pollution Project.
What’s your involvement with The Forever Pollution Project?
I was first contacted by the French journalist, Stéphane Horel, who works for the French newspaper Le Monde in early June 2022. Stéphane told me of her ambitions to make a European map of PFAS contamination and I agreed to help out. I provided her with what I knew about PFAS sources including some detailed information on the locations of fluoropolymer manufacturing plants in Europe. According to Stéphane herself, this was the starting point for her work.
The journalists in the network are calling their findings a “peer-reviewed journalism experience.” Do you agree with their choice of method and subsequent description?
The method has been previously applied in the US and the work published in one of the top journals in our field, namely; Environmental Science and Technology. You can read about the methodology in the US publication by following this link: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.estlett.2c00502. The journalists have been guided by the US scientists who wrote the journal article. Additionally, I, and other scientists, have also reviewed the methodology used by the journalists and judged it to be scientifically sound.
The PFAS contamination in Europe is more extensive than previously thought. Are you surprised?
No, I’m not surprised because I knew about the different types of point sources of PFAS and the wide spread of PFAS contamination. We’re been writing about it in our publications for years. It’s great that the European PFAS contamination is now fully documented and publicly available.
The industry and governments claim that remediation of contaminated sites is too expensive. But what are risks and costs of inaction?
Industry and governments also claim that remediation is not needed even at highly contaminated sites because, they claim, there are no imminent risks to environmental, animal and human health. However, the levels which are considered “safe levels” keep dropping as we better understand the toxicity of PFAS. In my opinion, more detailed investigations of contaminated areas are needed to better determine the potential risks and to identify the PFAS “hot spots” on the sites where remediation should be prioritized.
Can you comment on the extent of PFAS contamination in Sweden?
In Sweden, unlike France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy and the UK, there is no fluorochemical industry, but there are several commercial and military airports as well as firefighting training facilities where PFAS contamination is known to be high. Some of the well-known areas of PFAS contamination that have been investigated in Sweden show up as red dots on the maps (e.g. the military base (F17) at Ronneby, Arlanda commercial airport, etc.). Red dots on the maps are areas where PFAS concentrations have been measured above 10 ng/L and there are 17,310 of these in Europe. There are fewer red dots in Sweden than in neighboring Demark, but that is probably a reflection of the greater number of measurements in Denmark rather than higher PFAS contamination. There are many more blue dots than red dots in Sweden, which is interesting and potentially concerning. The blue dots on the maps pinpoint suspected PFAS sources, and thus areas of “presumptive PFAS contamination”. In many cases where there are blue dots, no measurements of PFAS levels have been made to date.
In your opinion, why are the threshold set by the EU for implementation in 2026 too high to protect human health when overwhelming scientific evidence exists on the effects of these chemicals even in low concentrations?
There is a lack of consensus internationally on health risks associated with PFAS. For example, drinking water health advisories vary by orders of magnitude between countries, and even within countries (e.g. in the US). At the EU-level, compromises have to made between the various member states when setting environmental limit values. Whereas Sweden and Denmark would agree on setting stricter EU-wide drinking water guidelines many other EU countries would oppose such a move.
The Project analysed upwards of 1000 confidential- and hundreds of open-source documents showing that manufacturers such as 3M, Chemours and others are trying to exempt their products from the EU ban. How can these companies bypass EU laws and what measures should regulators consider to stop them?
The manufacturers mostly invested effort in trying to convince the Commission that PFAS have valuable properties which are extremely challenging or impossible to replace with alternatives. It is indeed the case that innovation will be needed for certain uses, and this could take years. However, alternatives are available for many of the current uses and new alternatives are being developed through ongoing R&D. Companies cannot bypass the ban completely, but they can obtain a long derogation (permission to continue using PFAS) for up to 12 years. A derogation always has a time limit and it should be considered as a timeline for phaseout and for finding alternatives. Twelve-year derogations will, for example, apply to use of PFAS in implantable medical devices, hydraulic fluids in aircraft, and some laboratory equipment.
In the ZeroPM project researchers at Stockholm University are building a database of alternatives for uses of PFAS.
What do you hope that The Forever Pollution Project will achieve?
It will yet again raise awareness of the PFAS pollution problem. I also hope that it will encourage regulatory authorities to perform more assessments of the risks around the many potential PFAS point sources flagged in this work.
About the Forever Pollution Project
The cross-border investigation Forever Pollution Project was made by YOUR MEDIA in collaboration with journalists from Knack (Belgium), Denik Referendum (Czechia), Politiken (Denmark), YLE (Finland), Le Monde (France), NDR, WDR and Süddeutsche Zeitung (Germany), Reporters United (Greece), Radar and Le Scienze (Italy), Radio Latvia (Latvia), The Investigative Desk / NRC (The Netherlands), SRF (Switzerland), Datadista / el Diario.es (Spain), Watershed Investigations / The Guardian (UK). The project is supported by Journalismfund.eu and Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU), and by Arena for Journalism in Europe as a cross-border collaborative project of the Food & Water network.