Drinking water is safe, Environment Secretary Therese Coffey has said, despite the recommended safe allowance for toxic “forever chemicals” in drinking water being nearly 100,000 times greater in the UK than the US.
Called forever chemicals because their tough molecular structure means they do not break down in the environment, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are industrial pollutants that have become near ubiquitous in recent decades.
They have been manufactured or imported into Britain for more than 90 years and Environment Agency testing suggests they are present in most groundwater, surface water, plants and animals in England.
Two types, PFOA and PFOS, have been linked to severe health conditions affecting the stomach, liver and thyroid.
The US Environmental Protection Agency wants to create statutory requirements to enforce a limit of 0.000004 micrograms per litre for PFOA and PFOS.
The Health and Safety Executive recommends similar legislation be enacted in the UK but the Government’s new Plan for Water contains no proposals to do so.
Current guidance asks water companies to limit PFAS in drinking water to 0.1 micrograms per litre.
Asked why there is such a discrepancy between the US and the UK, Ms Coffey said: “I believe our drinking water is safe, absolutely. And we’ll continue, but we’ve talked about we’re going to be banning certain PFAS chemicals.”
It wants this year to begin a proposal to restrict PFAS in foam while preparing for other restrictions on PFAS in consumer products such as textiles, cleaning products, paints and varnishes.
Riccardo la Torre, national officer with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), said PFAS has been a part of firefighters’ work “for far too long”.
He added: “No one should face losing their health because of their job. That’s why the FBU demands urgent action on all fronts to protect firefighters from these deadly health risks while they are protecting the public from fires.
“In addition to eliminating exposures to PFAS we need other vital measures in place to prevent, mitigate and address exposure to dangerous chemicals.
“Firefighters also need annual health monitoring to catch diseases early, and access to compensation if they are diagnosed with an occupational disease.”
Elsewhere in the Plan for Water, the Government suggested people use water butts and smart meters to reduce demand while a ban on plastics in wet wipes was suggested for the third time in five years.
A consultation in 2021 found 96% of people were in favour but no further action has since been taken.
Steve Hynd, policy manager at the environmental charity City to Sea, said: “It’s disappointing that years after this consultation we’re still only hearing now an announcement for another consultation for a proposed ban on plastic-filled wet wipes.
“Plastic wet wipes cost hundreds of millions in sewage blockages each year and cause a catastrophic environmental problem, changing the shape of rivers and harming marine wildlife. While government drags its feet, supermarkets could and should take these from their shelves now.”