New study highlights PFAS burden on environment, as US moves to ban ‘forever chemical’ use in federal buildings

More than two-thirds of the world’s drinking water contains unsafe levels of PFAS or ‘forever chemicals’, a new study has found.

It comes on the heels of the US imposing limits on PFAS in drinking water and banning public building contractors from using products containing them. 

The University of New South Wales (UNSW)-led international study, published last week in Nature Geoscience, found 69 per cent of global source water contained per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at levels above Health Canada’s drinking water guidelines. Canada’s guidelines were used as the country had some of the most stringent restrictions on PFAS, especially compared with Australia, the report stated. 

The study is the first to quantify the environmental burden of PFAS on a global scale. 

It assessed the level of PFAS contamination in surface and ground water around the world, prompting researchers to believe we’re likely underestimating the future impact of PFAS on the environment.

According to senior author and UNSW Engineering professor Denis O’Carroll, the study reviewed PFAS measurements from more than 45,000 global water sources, spanning 20 years.

It discovered many of the sites tested exceeded safe regulatory drinking limits for PFAS – between five and 50 percent in some cases. This included locations in Australia, typically where fire-fighting foams had been used in the past.

“There’s debate about what level PFAS should be regulated to,” O’Carroll said in a statement.  “Australia has much higher limits than the US, but the question is why.”

US Government takes action on PFAS for public building contractors

The findings come as the US Government announced on 8 April it was directing government contractors to purchase cleaning products for federal buildings that were free of toxic “forever chemicals”.

It called on federal agencies to prioritise the purchase of sustainable products and services, including products without added PFAS.

Currently, the US General Services Administration’s Public Building Service has more than 600 contracts for custodial services at more than 1500 government-owned buildings at a cost of more than US$400 million per year. It is expected most of these contracts will include the new specifications within five years.

“Everyone deserves protection from the harmful effects of forever chemicals, including the workers who use cleaning products, federal employees, and those who visit government buildings every day,” EPA administrator Michael Regan said. 

“EPA has well-recognised and established tools to help our partners in the federal government identify cleaning products that use safer ingredients and do not contain intentionally added PFAS to keep people safe and healthy.”

The impact of forever chemicals

PFAS substances comprise a group of more than 14,000 human-made chemicals that have been used since the 1950s for their heat, water, grease and stain-resistant properties.  

They are found in common household items, from clothing and cosmetics to food packaging and specialised products, like fire-fighting foams. 

In recent times, PFAS substances have been coined ‘forever chemicals’ due to their inability to degrade once they are in the ground, water sources, and even our bodies. 

New Zealand bans ‘forever chemicals’ in cosmetics

In January, the New Zealand Environmental Protection Authority announced it was banning the use of PFAS substances in cosmetic products from 31 December 2026.

New Zealand is one of the first countries in the world to take this step to further protect consumers and the environment.

Hazardous substances reassessments manager Dr Shaun Presow said PFAS were sometimes used in products such as nail polish, shaving cream, foundation, lipstick, and mascara. They are added to smooth the skin or to make cosmetic products more durable, spreadable and water-resistant. 

“We know these chemicals don’t easily break down, they can build up in our bodies, and some can be toxic at high levels,” Presow said.

Science zeroes in on commercial products

Meanwhile, O’Carroll said he and his team would now turn their attention to developing a body of research that quantified PFAS levels from commercial products within the environment. They will also explore developing technologies that could break down PFAS in drinking water systems.

O’Carroll advised manufacturers and consumers to be weary when using products containing PFAS. 

“We manufacture and distribute a lot of chemicals without having a full assessment on their potential health impacts,” he said in a statement.

“We should have judicious use of some of these chemicals. Just because they’re available, doesn’t mean that we should use them.”

Photo by Verne Ho.

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