Perfluorinated chemicals, or PFAS (which stands for “perfluoroalkyl substances”), are a little-known class of chemicals that have sparked one of the biggest drinking-water contamination crises in recent decades. And they are likely costing the European economy billions in health costs each year.
In a report published March 14, the Nordic Council estimates that health costs from exposure to PFAS costs Europe between €52 and €84 billion ($59-$95 billion) per year. (The Nordic Council is the official body for cooperation among the governments of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.)
PFAS chemicals have been linked to a range of health risks in humans including cancer, immune-system issues, and developmental problems in fetuses. In one study conducted in Veneto, Italy, young men exposed to PFAS in drinking water from industrial runoff were found to have shorter penises and a lower sperm count.
The new report highlights kidney cancer, an ailment linked to PFA exposure after researchers spent years studying high rates of the disease in a West Virginia community. The Nordic report classified kidney disease as a particular threat to workers at chemical production plants or manufacturing sites that use PFAS. The report estimates between 84,000 and 273,000 such workers in Europe are at risk of kidney cancer, costing the continent between €12.7 and €41.4 billion per year in health costs alone.
The extent of global exposure to this class of compounds is still unclear, as communities around the world are only just discovering evidence of contamination, primarily in their drinking water. PFAS are used to make nonstick, waterproof, and grease-resistant materials —Teflon, Scotchgard, and Gore Tex are some of the most widely recognized brand names the chemicals are associated with. PFAS are also widely used as the active ingredient in firefighting foam.
Last year, a group of United Nations experts decided to add two of the most widely used PFAS, PFOA and PFOS, to the organization’s list of chemical banned globally under the Stockholm Convention. If the recommendation is adopted at the next UN Conference of Parties in September—and, thus far, every recommendation of the committee has been adopted—it would be a legally binding ban for the 181 countries plus the European Union that are party to the Stockholm Convention.
Yet even if the chemicals are banned, contamination from PFAS will likely continue for decades, barring a massive effort to cleanup industrial waste sites; the compounds are highly persistent, meaning they don’t break down in the environment.