“Eternal chemicals”, substances known for their incredible persistence in the environment, are found virtually everywhere – in our clothes, our furniture, our air.
But for some 200,000 people living near chemical plants outside the French city of Lyon, potentially toxic levels of the compounds are showing up in vegetable gardens, drinking water and even the milk of nursing mothers.
A press investigation revealed alarming levels of so-called PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in the air, soil and water surrounding two chemical plants south of Lyon, France‘s third-largest city.
The findings prompted authorities to investigate the contamination and crack down on this entire class of synthetic chemicals, which have been used for decades across a wide range of industries to make coatings and products that resist heat, water or stains.
What do “forever chemicals” do to our health?
PFAS substances are nicknamed “eternal chemicals” because they do not break down naturally and instead accumulate in humans and the environment over time.
They contain carbon-fluorine bonds, which are among the strongest chemical bonds in organic chemistry. This means they resist degradation when in use – as well as in the environment.
Most PFAS are also easily transported away from the source of their releasein the air and in the water.
“These are chronic systemic toxicants. And that means they produce diseases that tend not to show up until we get a little older,” said Jamie DeWitt, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University, at Euronews Next.
Exposure to high levels of PFAS has been linked to decreased immunity, hormonal disruption, thyroid dysfunction, high cholesterol, and other serious health issues, including a increased risk of certain types of cancer.
“The two with the strongest links are kidney cancer and testicular cancer. But some studies have reported increases in breast cancer, prostate cancer, and bladder cancer,” DeWitt said.
“Is the data strong enough to support a causal link between these diseases in humans? This is currently the subject of debate within the scientific community. But I think those of us who study PFAS are quite confident that (…) the links between exposure and these health effects is quite strong and quite compelling”.
“I used to say there really is no safe level of PFAS,” she added. “These are industrial chemicals. They don’t belong in our body.”
Children and babies most at risk
The experts Euronews Next spoke to said the most obvious health impact of PFAS to date is on the immune system.
“We see in children that they don’t respond as well to vaccinations. We also find that they contract infectious diseases more frequently in early childhood,” said Philippe Grandjean, assistant professor of environmental health at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
Unborn children and babies are particularly vulnerable, he said, because PFAS chemicals pass from the placenta into the blood of the developing fetus and are also found in even higher concentrations in breast milk.
“So the mother shares her burden of PFAS with the next generation,” Grandjean said.
“We’re basically punishing the next generation for our mistake of using these compounds without restrictions and profusely contaminating the environment.”
DeWitt said the risk-benefit ratio so far seemed to favor breastfeeding even if mothers are exposed to PFAS contamination, but she acknowledged that was largely because the data on the subject were rare.
“What we understand of these risks is far less than what we understand of the benefits of breastfeeding,” she said. “We know that breastfeeding is very, very beneficial for babies and we know less about the risks of transferring PFAS to babies.”
What is happening with PFAS pollution in France?
French TV show Vert de Rage took samples of air, soil, river water and drinking water near two chemical plants in Pierre-Bénite, an industrial town on the banks of the Rhône just south of Lyons.
He also collected breast milk samples from 13 volunteer mothers in the area.
The team found that the PFAS levels in the Rhône samples downstream of the factories were more than 36,000 times those found 2.5 km upstream of the factories.
Levels of PFAS found in tap water samples have also greatly exceeded EU thresholds due to come into force by 2026 (over 200 ng/l, against a limit of 100 ng/l). This drinking water flows through the taps of some 200,000 people south of Lyon.
“I am particularly concerned about the contamination of tap water here,” said Jacob de Boer, professor of chemistry and environmental toxicology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and expert in PFAS, who commented on the results during a public presentation. in Lyon on Tuesday.
Grandjean, who was not involved in the study, said: “It’s a huge excess.”
He noted that Denmark’s current safety limit for PFAS substances in drinking water was 2 ng/l. In the USA, the Environmental Protection Agency has set a health advisory level of 70ng/l.
“Obviously, if we’re talking about levels above 100 ng/l, that means public use of this water needs to be stopped immediately,” de Boer said.
The levels of PFAS found in breast milk were also significantly higher than levels deemed acceptable by the World Health Organization (WHO), he added.
Environmental campaign group Générations Futures did not call on residents to stop drinking tap water or breastfeeding their babies, but said the findings raised worrying questions and should be investigated by the authorities as soon as possible.
What are companies and authorities saying?
Arkema, one of the chemical plants operating in Pierre-Bénite, told Euronews Next that it was not a producer of PFAS, only a “limited user” of a fluorinated additive – called 6:2 FTS – on its production lines.
He told the site, which makes fluoropolymers “designed for extreme inertness in harsh environments”, complies with all applicable industrial waste regulations and is regularly inspected by the authorities.
Daikin Chemical Europe has confirmed the use of perfluorohexanoic acid (PFHxA) at its Pierre-Bénite plant, which produces fluoroelastomers, mainly for the automotive industry.
It said it has made “substantial investments” to reduce its PFAS emissions and that it captures 99% of the residues in its industrial wastewater.
The Rhône prefecture, which represents the French state in the region, said in a statement that government departments already regularly inspect local chemical plants, but will now take a closer look at PFAS pollution.
He added that the French government would also start working at the national level to “better understand and combat these pollutants”.
On Wednesday, French Environment Minister Barbara Pompili issued a government decree that expands the list of pollutants to be monitored in surface and ground water nationwide. The list now includes around 100 additional chemicals, including PFAS.
Change is also coming to the European level.
The European Commission has committed in its Chemicals Strategy 2020 to phase out the use of all PFAS in the European Union over the next few years “unless it proves to be essential for the company”.
Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden are leading efforts to restrict non-essential uses of these chemicals forever, with a proposal expected by 2023.