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

by Shealeigh
Published: Last Updated on

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 Insider. Morgan McFall-Johnsen’s article reported results from a global study of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) conducted by researchers from Stockholm University and the Institute of Biogeochemistry and Pollutant Dynamics at ETH Zurich. In an August 2022 report published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, scientists concluded that “in many areas inhabited by humans,” PFAS contamination levels in rainwater, surface water, and soil “often greatly exceed” the strictest international guidelines for acceptable levels of perfluoroalkyl acids.

To reach this conclusion, the researchers compared levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (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,” the researchers reported. 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 post on the Stockholm University website. Cousins drew even more dire conclusions in an August 2022 interview: “We have crossed a planetary boundary,” the researcher told Agence France-Presse, “We have made the planet inhospitable to human life . . . [N]othing is clean anymore.”

The PFAS 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,” 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) issued interim updated drinking water health advisories for PFOA and PFOS. According to the agency, the updated advisory levels were “based on new science,” including findings that “some negative health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero.” As Insider reported, the EPA had previously set seventy parts per trillion as acceptable levels for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. In its June 2022 advisory, the EPA set interim guidelines to 0.004 parts per trillion for PFOA and 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS.

The news that rainwater is no longer safe to drink due to PFAS contamination has received limited corporate news coverage. In an August 2022 article about the EPA’s decision to label two “forever chemicals” as hazardous, the Washington Post mentioned 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 University/ETH Zurich 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 Discovery Channel, and Medical News Today.

Corporate outlets have done more to cover a developing series of lawsuits against chemical manufacturing companies that use PFAS in their products. In December 2022, the Wall Street Journal reported that, in response to growing “criticism and litigation” over alleged health and environmental impacts, the multinational conglomerate 3M will “stop making forever chemicals and cease using them by the end of 2025.” As this volume goes to press, several states—including California, Maine, New Mexico, Maryland, and Rhode Island—have brought or are bringing litigation against 3M and other companies for significant harm to residents and natural resources caused by “forever chemicals.” CNBC reported that the PFAS trial “could set the tone for future lawsuits.” In June 2023, three US-based chemical companies—DuPont, and two spin-off companies, Chemours and Corteva—reached a $1.18 billion deal to resolve complaints of polluting drinking water systems with potentially harmful “forever chemicals.” The same month, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, published a study in the Annals of Global Health using internal industry documents to show that the companies responsible for “forever chemicals” have known for decades that these substances pose significant threats to human health and the environment.

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

Student Researcher: Grace Harty (North Central College)

Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)