Toxic substances from the site of a chemicals company have been found polluting a protected river in Lancashire at “extremely high levels”, in what has been described as a “huge concern”, an investigation by the Guardian and Watershed Investigations has uncovered.
More than 700 types of perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) were detected in effluent coming from the site of AGC Chemicals’ plant at Thornton Cleveleys, near Blackpool, into the River Wyre which flows into Morecambe Bay.
The area into which the polluted effluent is flowing has been designated a marine protection zone since 2019 because it is important habitat for key fish species.
PFAS is a family of thousands of human-made substances known as “forever chemicals” because they are extremely persistent and will not break down in the environment for thousands of years.
Some are also known to be toxic and can accumulate in the human body. It is not illegal to release them into the environment, but activists have urged the government to introduce legal restrictions.
PFOA, one of the most-studied substances in the group, has been strongly linked to a wide range of diseases, including testicular and kidney cancer, thyroid disease, hypertension and ulcerative colitis. It has also been linked to high cholesterol, low birth weight, reduced immune function and developmental problems.
It is classed as persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) with its use severely restricted under the Stockholm convention, a global treaty to which the UK is a signatory. The European Commission recently announced plans to outlaw the entire PFAS class of about 10,000 chemicals.
Analysis of samples of AGC’s effluent revealed levels of PFOA as high as 12,000 nanograms a litre in 2021.
AGC’s discharge is not illegal and, while levels of PFOA was detected, the company said it does not use PFOA in its manufacturing processes.
“Any PFOA in the effluent may have come from historical usage at the site, with AGC Chemicals Europe, Ltd. having voluntarily phased out the substance over a decade ago in 2012,” it said.
There is no UK standard for PFOA in rivers or effluent, but the EU is considering imposing standards of 4.4ng/l of PFOA equivalents for the sum of 24 PFAS. The sum is calculated using relative potency factors – which multiply or divide concentration values depending on how potent a PFAS is compared with PFOA.
When all PFAS in the effluent are added together, the total concentration is estimated to be about 400,000ng/l.
Dr David Megson, a forensic environmental scientist from Manchester Metropolitan University, said the “extremely high levels of PFOA detected in these environmental samples are clearly a cause for concern” but that he believes they are just the “tip of the iceberg”.
Working in collaboration with Agilent Technologies, Megson performed an analysis to establish what other PFAS may also be present in the samples.
“When comparing our data against a PFAS library provided by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, our results came back to suggest there could be [more than] 700 different PFAS within just one sample.
“From this data we were able to estimate approximate total PFAS concentrations in that sample of [more than] 400,000ng/l.
“These are some of the highest PFAS concentrations ever recorded in environmental samples and so the thought of these being present in our UK waters is of huge concern.
“What is also particularly concerning [in the UK] is the reliance on targeted analytical approaches that are commonplace in current environmental assessments.”
Megson says his data shows that “we don’t just have a few legacy PFAS such as PFOA and PFOS in UK waters, we have hundreds and potentially thousands of different compounds”.
He added: “More appropriate research and funding is desperately required so we can start to get a handle on how widespread this issue is and what impacts it is having on our environment and human health.”
Crispin Halsall, professor of environmental organic chemistry at Lancaster University, said he believed the levels of PFAS discovered in the effluents were “unacceptable”.
“With PFOA, you’ve got a chemical which is currently [deemed] a persistent organic pollutant under the Stockholm convention and is a largely banned substance … being released into estuarine waters, so straight away that’s a red flag to me.
“It will certainly bioaccumulate, there will be seabirds and wading birds with higher levels of PFOA in the south Morecambe Bay area as a result.
“It can affect the functioning of the liver, egg viability with breeding pairs … there’s evidence it can interfere with the developing foetus … [and] there are epidemiological studies where women exposed to levels of PFOA generally have lower postnatal birthweight: that’s very well-established now.”
AGC said that data from studies it has commissioned “do not indicate a significant impact on the environment from the effluent”.
Halsall said that some of the perfluoroalkyl ethers [a type of PFAS] found in the effluent “are used as replacements for things like PFOA and they’re being produced in really high quantities and they’re being released into the environment and we simply don’t know what are the risks associated with those compounds. There is evidence that they’re bioaccumulating but we really don’t know what the toxicities are associated with that exposure.”
One such substance is a perfluoroalkyl ether manufactured by AGC which has replaced PFOA in some manufacturing processes since the Stockholm convention ban on PFOA.
AGC says its perfluoroalkyl ether is not classed as being persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic, but some scientists consider it to be persistent and likely to bioaccumulate. No evidence has been produced that it causes harm to human health.
Detlef Knappe, professor of civil construction and environmental engineering at North Carolina State University, is deputy director of the university’s Centre for Environmental and Health Effects of PFAS.
He says his work has shown that perfluoroalkyl ether carboxylic acids are long-lasting and do not break down in the environment. He says he “would expect AGC’s perfluoro[(2-ethyloxy-ethoxy)acetic acid] to be persistent as well” because it is also a perfluoroalkyl ether carboxylic acid.
Knappe also expects the AGC chemical to be bioaccumulative, since similar substances have exhibited bioaccumulative properties.
AGC Chemicals Europe said that “its site at Thornton Cleveleys strictly adheres to legal requirements set by the Environmental Agency in all areas, including any discharge into the River Wyre”.
It said it does not “use or manufacture PFOA. Any PFOA in the effluent may have come from historical usage at the site, with AGC Chemicals Europe having voluntarily phased out the substance over a decade ago in 2012.
“We regularly monitor our manufacturing processes and discharge. The reality is that samples taken from the effluent of an industrial site do not represent concentrations found in surface water.
“Our studies, conducted in accordance with EU regulations, confirm that the trace amount of proprietary compound emitted during our manufacturing processes is not classified as persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic. Our freshwater studies have found no accumulative potential.
“We are constantly improving our manufacturing processes in line with our sustainability goals with a view to implementing additional abatement technologies to reduce our emissions even further. In addition, we will continue our engagement with the Environment Agency and local authorities, and stand ready to comply with any changes in regulatory requirements.”
It added that data from studies it has commissioned “do not indicate a significant impact on the environment from the effluent”.
An Environment Agency spokesperson said that beside its extensive monitoring programme for PFAS chemicals, it was working with operators at AGC as part of a wider effort to examine the risks posed by PFAS.
“This analysis will be published in Spring 2023 and will make recommendations for risk management measures, building on the commitment in the 25 Year Environment Plan to tackle chemicals of concern.”
But for some groups the UK government appears to lack the urgency required to tackle this issue.
“PFAS have been described as probably the greatest chemical threat the human race is facing in the 21st century,” said Dr Clare Cavers of the environmental charity Fidra.
“Not only do the results found by this investigation show we need to improve monitoring, we also need to urgently address the discharge of all PFAS into the environment and take action to prevent it.”
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