Microplastics, ‘Forever Chemicals’ Have Contaminated Rain Beyond Safe Levels, Shows Study
A new study published earlier this month by the American Chemical Society cautions people about the exceeding levels of microplastics and forever chemicals in rainwater. Microplastics are tiny plastic particles less than five millimeters in diameter, while forever chemicals — a colloquial term for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — are a class of human-made chemicals that are hard to break down and that have been around since the 1940s. Cosmetics, non-stick kitchen appliances, food wrappers, and a host of other products all contain PFAS. The current study claims that the levels of both microplastics and forever chemicals in the earth’s hydrosphere have exceeded the limits considered safe for human consumption in countries like USA and Denmark, who have the strictest food and water safety standards.
For their research, the scientists carried out analyses of PFAS levels in rainwater across the globe over the past decade and found that even in remote areas such as the Tibetan Plateau, PFAS levels in water far exceeded the guidelines in the US or Denmark. In a press release, Ian Cousins, lead author of the study, commented, “Based on the latest U.S. guidelines for PFOA in drinking water, rainwater everywhere would be judged unsafe to drink. Although in the industrial world we don’t often drink rainwater, many people around the world expect it to be safe to drink and it supplies many of our drinking water sources.”
Highlighting the ever-present nature of some of the forever chemicals, the researchers note that levels of some PFAS in rainwater have not declined despite them being phased out almost two decades earlier by manufacturers. This is not only because of the persistent nature of these PFAS but also because of natural processes that continually cycle them back from the surface environment to the atmosphere. For instance, PFAS travel from the seawater to marine air via sea spray aerosols that are formed by the bursting of bubbles — formed by the mixing of wind into the sea surface — at the air-sea interface.
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The study also indicates that PFAS have seeped into the soil as well. Ground contamination levels of PFAS in Europe regularly exceed permissible limits. In the Netherlands, this led to a temporary relaxation of safety standards to allow industries to operate without flouting norms.
It is important to note here that presently, the biological impacts of only four kinds of polyfluroalkyls are known. There are several more kinds of PFAS — at least 4000 of them distinctly recognized — in the open whose impact on our health is not known at all. These could even be toxic, but there exists no current research on how they affect us. The implications of the current study, then, could be even graver than they seem.
In January this year, another study also cautioned that the amount of forever chemicals on earth has breached what the scientists called a planetary safety limit. Although they do not provide exact numbers, the scientists point that chemical production on earth had doubled since 1950, and is in its course to triple again by 2050. The production of plastics and other synthetic chemicals is now taking place at a rate that is faster than what governments are equipped to deal with for risk assessment and management. The current study reinforces that there is a need to look for alternatives to the current chemicals in use for industrial and other purposes. Merely stopping the use of PFAS may not be adequate at this stage, as they may continue to persist in the environment nonetheless, but at least stopping the generation of even newer PFAS may improve the situation over time. The scientists in their research call for fresh planetary boundaries for PFAS for the safety of the global population.