The map of eternal chemicals shows the contamination of thousands of places in Europe with PFAS substances

The map of eternal chemicals shows the contamination of thousands of places in Europe with PFAS substances

A map of eternal chemicals shows the destruction of thousands of places in Europe with PFAS substances

Detail of plowed soil in a field – illustrative photo.

Paris/Brno/London – In many places in Europe there are high amounts of so-called perfluorinated and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) in the soil and water. These are chemicals linked to serious health problems, including cancer. Substances of this type are nicknamed “eternal chemicals” because they decompose very slowly in nature. An international group of European media, including France's Le Monde, Britain's The Guardian and Czech newspaper Deník Referendum, revealed thousands of contaminated sites in Europe as part of the Forever Pollution Project, including dozens in the Czech Republic.

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PFASs are used to make surfaces that are supposed to resist moisture, grease, or dirt, such as expanded Gore-Tex materials, Teflon, or cosmetic products. When they enter the bloodstream through water or food, they remain in the body permanently and, according to experts, can cause cancer, liver disease, immune system disorders or a decline in male fertility. NGO tests in 2021 found that PFASs are also found in food packaging, for example in McDonald's, KFC or Subway chains.

“Simply put, these are relatively short carbon chains where most or all of the hydrogens are replaced by fluorine. The bond between carbon and fluorine is very strong. In nature, there is essentially no mechanism that would break it down,” Professor Tomáš Cajthaml from the Institute for the Environment of Charles University told Deník Referendum.

On the interactive map of eternal chemicals in Europe, you can see over 17,000 areas contaminated with PFAS, researchers have found them on site in samples of soil, water or living organisms. The presence of more than ten nanograms per liter is considered a PFAS risk value, while the presence of more than 100 nanograms per liter is considered harmful to health. Journalists identified 2,100 places where PFAS substances were more than 100 nanograms per liter.

However, Le Monde says that it was “very conservative” when working with the data and that a more thorough investigation is needed in each of the European countries sampling. “The number of 'contaminated' and 'probably contaminated' places on the map is therefore greatly underestimated,” writes the journal.

The map also shows 20 chemical factories that synthesize PFAS for use in many industries and 232 factories that use PFAS in some way, four of which are in the Czech Republic.

The newspaper Referendum states that in the Czech Republic, in addition to universities, the Research Institute for Land Reclamation and Protection under the Ministry of Agriculture, which has been monitoring PFAS in sludge from selected wastewater treatment plants since 2013, deals with these substances. “The problem with the contamination of sewage sludge is that a third of it is used to fertilize agricultural land in the Czech Republic. The so-called eternal chemicals apparently end up in food,” the newspaper reports.

Public health experts state that the only way to prevent further contamination of the environment is to completely ban the use of these substances. In 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to deal with regulation in the United States, where scientists estimated in 2015 that PFAS were found in the blood of 97 percent of Americans. Denmark was the first country in the EU to ban the use of PFAS in food packaging.

The European Union is dealing with a blanket restriction or ban. Two weeks ago, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) published a proposal to restrict up to 10,000 types of PFAS. If measures are not taken, “in the next 30 years, about 4.4 million tons of these substances will end up in the environment”. by, Investigative Journalism for Europe and Arena for Journalism in Europe. The media also published the methodology used in the research.