Dark Waters: film about PFAS pollution stirring debate in Europe

As Todd Haynes’s new feature film Dark Waters opens in the UK, debate about a group of chemicals known as PFAS is likely to increase. AECOM’s Rick Parkman talks us through how PFAS is a global issue that affects Europe too.

Until recently PFAS haven’t had much attention in Europe – at least not in comparison to the fierce debate in the U.S. and Australia. In production since the 1940s, per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS, are found in everything from pizza boxes to firefighting foam. Some PFAS don’t break down, and can accumulate over time in humans, animals and the environment. In some cases, they’ve been known to leach into drinking water and appear in wastewater.

Whilst toxicity levels are uncertain, PFAS chemicals have been linked to weakened childhood immunity, thyroid disease, cancer and other health problems. Industries such as oil and gas refineries, chemical and industrial companies, landfills, ports and harbors, defense, aviation, and water treatment companies all face PFAS issues that require identification and intervention.

In the U.S. and Australia, high profile cases and class actions have raised public awareness and regulatory attention. In Europe, regulation and enforcement is evolving, with stricter rules anticipated.

What countries are taking action?

Across Europe awareness and approaches differ widely. Here are some examples:

Scandinavia – Norway, Sweden and Denmark are paving the way, and have regulatory standards defined for several PFAS compounds in soil and/or groundwater. Some of their drinking water standards for PFAS-related compounds PFOS and PFOA are the most stringent in Europe.

The Netherlands– Public awareness about the risks from PFAS has been sparked by several high-profile cases. Additionally, the Netherlands has always been comparatively more proactive compared with other European countries with regard to the regulation of contaminated land.

Italy – PFAS are gathering attention, in part driven by a case in the Veneto region in northern Italy where it has been estimated that up to a couple of hundred thousand people in a catchment may have been exposed to PFAS in their drinking water. The original concern related to a now defunct PFAS chemical production facility in northern Italy. Monitoring and health surveillance programmes have been put in place and further research continues, in part funded by the EU Life programme.

UK/Great Britain – In 2005, a fire broke out at the Buncefield oil depot. To bring it under control, firefighters poured vast quantities of the chemical onto the fire, contaminating the water table. The incident triggered increased concern on the potential for PFOS to impact drinking water supplies. The Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) introduced tiered drinking water standards for PFOS and PFOA in 2009. In the Channel Islands, dependencies of the British Crown, PFAS is firmly on the radar with well-known cases at both Guernsey and Jersey airports.

Is there a solution for PFAS?

A major concern about PFAS is that the very stable nature of the perfluorinated compounds means they are difficult to destroy. Although absorption or separation methods can be used to protect drinking water supplies, traditional remediation techniques cannot break the carbon-fluorine bonds in PFAS except through high-temperature incineration. This last method can be costly due to the need for transportation to a suitable facility. Several operators are therefore seeking better and more cost-efficient ways to deal with PFAS.

For more than a decade, AECOM has been looking at ways to treat PFAS in a cost-efficient manner on-site. Having worked on more than 300 PFAS projects globally, and successfully managed two of Australia’s precedent-setting PFAS investigations, the destructive treatment technology (DE-FLUOROTM) we’re developing is at the forefront of efforts to destroy these potentially toxic chemicals.

What’s ahead for Europe?

Because of their historic widespread use, PFAS touch many parts of our business and social communities. Regulations protecting human health and the environment from the potentially negative effects of PFAS are becoming increasingly stringent. This could continue as additional scientific information regarding the many thousands of PFAS is collected.

AECOM is helping inform industries and regions about PFAS, and the remediation and management solutions available.

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