They cause cancer, infertility and damage the immune system: chemicals of eternity are everywhere and have already been detected in the most remote corners of the world. The sometimes toxic substances – known as pesticides, biocides, active pharmaceutical ingredients or industrial chemicals – move around in the water cycle and are virtually impossible to break down. They get into our bodies via the food chain and also endanger newborns. Because the substances can hardly be filtered out of the environment, they are called eternal chemicals.
The Federal Environment Agency (UBA) has now shown in four current studies that German bodies of water and drinking water resources are more heavily polluted with these substances than previously assumed. To this end, researchers examined 76 surface and groundwater samples from 13 drinking water suppliers. The scientists found toxic substances in every sample, including so-called PFAS. These industrial chemicals are used, among other things, to coat outdoor clothing or as waterproofing agents. The researchers also detected mobile eternity chemicals. Substances such as industrial adhesives or solvents in particular are "considerably more common in the environment than previously known," summarize the researchers' results in a written communication available to the star.
Activated carbon filters and ozone are used in water treatment. The aim is to remove particles and substances and make the water drinkable again. Only many of the toxins discovered by the researchers are immune to these agents. 51 percent of the substances examined cannot simply be cleaned away.
In a representative survey of 27 German water laboratories, the UBA also shows that more than half of the 79 perpetual chemicals requested are not observed at all due to a lack of monitoring. It is therefore unclear how widespread the substances are in the water.
In order to be able to correctly assess the risk for the population and the environment, the concentration of the toxic substances in a sample is of little importance. "The problem is rather the extreme longevity and high mobility of the chemicals," says the UBA statement. Because of their special properties, the toxins can continue to spread undisturbed in the future. This also increases their concentration.
UBA President Dirk Messner appeals to the industry: Once people and the environment are contaminated with these difficult-to-degrade chemicals, "it can hardly be remedied, or only with immense effort and costs." He left it open what would be necessary and how much it would all cost.
A study from 2020 recently showed that children and adolescents between the ages of three and 17 already have too many pollutants in their blood. The researchers detected persistent industrial chemicals (PFAS) most frequently. The measured values largely exceeded the precautionary risk values.
Protecting oneself against it is hardly possible in view of the spread. Eternity chemicals are used in many ways because they repel grease, dirt and water. In everyday life, they can be found in coated frying pans, clothing, fast food packaging such as French fries bags and very rarely in cosmetics. "It is usually not possible to tell whether a product contains PFAS, since in most product areas there is no labeling requirement for these eternal chemicals," says the consumer advice center.
According to the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, the chemicals are mainly ingested through food, drinking water, but also through contact with products containing PFAS. Mothers can pass the toxic substances on to their children when breastfeeding.
Using a current literature analysis of 55 studies that were published between 2000 and 2019, the Federal Environment Agency has now been able to identify 600 chemicals in German water resources. Around half are listed in the regulations of the European Chemicals Regulation (REACH). 338 of the substances mentioned there were discovered in groundwater, 385 in drinking water.
REACH is one of the strictest chemical laws in the world. Companies must independently ensure that their chemicals are used without further risks. Otherwise they may not be distributed. To do this, companies must independently evaluate the substances they use. The chemicals are registered by the authorities and regulated according to their properties. On the website of the European Chemicals Agency, various substances are listed with their hazard values and conditions of use. Companies can read about the conditions under which they are allowed to use melamine, an adhesive, for example. The Federal Environment Agency has also drawn up a similar list based on the research results and is appealing to industry to reduce chemical emissions.
Already last year, the Federal Environment Agency gave the German waters a bad report. According to the "Water Framework Directive", 10 percent of rivers, lakes and coastal waters were in good condition by 2022. Although their condition has improved since 2015, the authority rated every fifth groundwater body in Germany as bad simply because the nitrate values were too high. The waters suffered from high levels of nutrients and pollutants, said UBA boss Messner at the time. According to the forecast, Germany will miss the targets of the European Water Framework Directive by 2027. It stipulates that water is available in sufficient quantities and of high quality.
Sources: Federal Environment Agency1, Federal Environment Agency2, Federal Environment Agency3, Federal Environment Agency4, Water Framework Directive, EAWAG Water Research Institute, Consumer Advice Center, Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, European Chemical Agency, "Science Direct"