Do you have clean tap water?

Polyfluorinated alkyls, also known as PFASs, have unique water and grease repellent properties. It is these qualities that prevent bacon slices sticking to your frying pan, and that protect you from wind and weather as you speed off on ski slopes wearing your shell jacket.

- Gøril Aasen Slinde and I investigate chemicals present in water. To find the answer, we have compared over 80 different environmental studies. Our study revealed that 88 percent of the water samples tested from various locations around the world contained PFBS. This a molecule in the PFAS family originally intended to replace earlier versions which were health and environmentally damaging. PFBS are artificially produced substances used in the industrial context since the beginning of the 1950s.

The substances have a wide range of applications and are found in Teflon, outdoor equipment, non-stick food packaging paper and the foam in fire extinguishers. This in turn leads to landfills and wastewater treatment plants becoming sources of emissions.

So far, PFBS has been found in raindrops, in snow on Svalbard, in our bodies and in the water tap in the kitchen of my in-laws at Skøyen in Oslo, among other places

Water-soluble and very mobile

PFAS's are introduced to the body through water and food and can be found in the blood. They are water-soluble and very mobile, so when released into the ecosystem they can contaminate water sources and plants.

These are heavily degradable substances. In fact, they are not completely broken down under the conditions we find in nature. When these health and environmentally hazardous chemicals find their way into the environment, the risk of injury to both humans and animals increases. For example, animal studies have shown that prolonged or repeated exposure may cause birth defects in mammals, (this applies to PFOS and PFOA, among others).

Emissions to the environment are estimated at around 500 tonnes a year worldwide. These substances are less decomposable in the environment than microplastics, and furthermore, are very mobile and easily transported with water.

Almost 5000 different compounds have been registered in the drug group PFAS. Some of the substances within this group have already been phased out in the Western world because of negative consequences. The manufacturers have therefore started to make substances they claim are better for the environment. An alternative produced in large volume is PFBS.

Already in 2004, a Nordic project started to map the extent of PFAS pollution in Norway. The substances were detected, among other places, in the lakes Mjøsa and Tyrifjorden, but the concentration was not considered to be site-specific. The Norwegian Environment Agency wanted more knowledge and more environmental tests.

It is currently unclear which concentration level represents challenges for public health and the environment.

Even if banned today, the substances concentrations in drinking water will continue to increase. Existing products in use will continue to leak the substances into the environment.

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Hans Peter Arp, Ph.D., researcher in environmental chemistry at NGI and Professor II at NTNU (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

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The research

  • Who: Hans Peter Arp and Gøril Aasen Slinde, NGI
  • What: PFBS in the environment: Environmental monitoring physical-chemical data in connection with distribution of polyfluorinated alkyls in the environment.
  • Where: Report to The Norwegian Environment Agency, M-1122/2018

The study

  • The purpose of the study is to investigate the prevalence of PFBS in the environment, to map out the physical and chemical properties of the compounds and to look at where to find them.
  • NGI was commissioned by the Norwegian Environment Agency to help make the substance regulated in the EU. The first step is to register the substance on the "candidate list", which is a list of substances with very sensitive properties.
  • If PFBS is included on this list, it will serve to educate us consumers so that we can make better and more conscious choices and help influence society towards more sustainable consumption.