“Forever Chemicals” in Rainwater a Global Threat to Human Health

by Vins

Environmental scientists have found hazardous levels of manufactured chemicals in rainwater, leading to the dramatic conclusion that rainwater is “no longer safe to drink anywhere on Earth,” according to an August 2022 report from Business Insider. Morgan McFall-Johnsen’s article reported results from a global study of four types of perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs), conducted by researchers from Stockholm University and the Institute of Biogeochemistry and Pollutant Dynamics, in Zurich. In an August 2022  report published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, the scientists concluded that, “in many areas inhabited by humans,” PFAA contamination levels in rainwater, surface water, and soil “often greatly exceed” the strongest international guidelines for acceptable levels of perfluoroalkyl acids.

To reach this conclusion, the researchers compared levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (or PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) in rainwater from around the world with the drinking water guidelines established by environmental agencies in the United States and Denmark, “which are the most stringent advisories known globally.” Based on the latest US guidelines for PFOA in drinking water, “rainwater everywhere would be judged unsafe to drink,” the lead author of the study, Ian Cousins, stated in a press release.

The perfluoroalkyl acids the researchers examined are known informally as “forever chemicals,” because they take a long time to break down, “allowing them to build up in people, animals, and environments,” Business Insider reported. Prior research has linked these chemicals to prostate, kidney, and testicular cancer and additional health risks, including developmental delays in children, decreased fertility in women and men, reduced vaccine efficacy, and high cholesterol. In June 2022, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced new, more rigorous drinking water health advisories for PFAS chemicals.

The news that rainwater is no longer safe to drink and its link to PFAS and PFOS has received limited corporate news coverage. In an August 2022 article about the US EPA’s decision to label two “forever chemicals” as hazardous, the Washington Post noted, in understated fashion, that “even some rainwater is tainted with PFAS at dangerously high levels, according to one recent study.” In April 2022, before the publication of the Stockholm study, a New York Times report on the prevalence of PFAS made passing reference to how these substances have “found their way into rainwater, soil, sediment, ice caps, and outdoor and indoor plants.” Beyond the most prestigious US newspapers, the study’s findings have received more detailed coverage from USA Today, the environmental news site Discovery, and Medical News Today.

Source: Morgan McFall-Johnsen, “Rainwater is No Longer Safe to Drink Anywhere on Earth Due to ‘Forever Chemicals’ Linked to Cancer, Study Suggests,” Business Insider, August 13, 2022.

Student Researcher: Grace Harty (North Central College)

Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)