Bans demanded

Eternal chemical contaminates our drinking water

10.07.2024 14:09

The harmful chemical trifluoroacetate (TFA) is consistently detectable in Austrian drinking water, reported environmental chemist Helmut Burtscher-Schaden at a press conference in Vienna on Wednesday. These are classed as perpetual chemicals as they take an extremely long time to degrade.

In a petition to the provincial governors and the federal government, the environmental protection organization Global 2000 calls for an "immediate ban" on the main sources of TFA: certain agricultural pesticides (PFAS pesticides) and refrigerants (F-gases).

Environmentalists from Global 2000 and the European Pesticide Action Network (PAN Europe) took samples of tap and mineral water in eleven EU countries such as Austria, Germany and Hungary in spring 2024. They then had an analysis carried out to determine whether they contained TFA. This substance is one of the per- and polyfluorinated alkyl compounds, PFAS for short, which are increasingly being banned in the European Union due to their many harmful effects on health. It is the "terminal degradation product" of around 2000 PFAS and is considered an "eternal chemical" due to its high stability, according to Burtscher-Schaden (Global 2000).

Many mineral water bottles also contaminated
The environmentalists were able to detect TFA in 32 samples from public drinking water networks and two samples from private Austrian domestic wells. Only two water samples from Germany contained no detectable amounts of TFA, they report. Bottled mineral and spring water also contained TFA in almost two thirds of cases. "However, the average amount of contamination in mineral and spring water was significantly lower than in tap water," says the environmental chemist.

Most samples within the limit value
Mineral and spring water bottles contained an average of 278 billionths of a gram (nanogram) of TFA per liter, with a maximum value of 3200 nanograms per liter. In tap water, the average was 740 nanograms per liter with a maximum value of 4100 nanograms per liter in an Upper Austrian tap water sample. According to a risk analysis by a European health authority (the Dutch Institute for Public Health and the Environment - RIVM) based on the current state of knowledge, 2200 nanograms per liter would be a suitable guideline value for drinking water. "This limit was complied with by 94 percent of the samples tested," says the Global 2000 report.

"In 2026, however, a standard limit value for 'total PFAS' of 500 nanograms per liter in drinking water is to come into force in the EU," it continues. Around half of the tap water samples tested would exceed this limit due to their TFA contamination. If the entry of TFA into drinking water is not stopped, it would have to be artificially treated using expensive technical purification processes, according to the environmentalists.

Lots of agriculture, lots of perpetual chemicals
The main cause of drinking water contamination with TFA is thought to be the agricultural use of pesticides containing PFAS (e.g. as anti-foaming agents). In areas with a lot of agricultural land, such as Upper and Lower Austria, Styria and Burgenland, TFA levels would be significantly higher than in Salzburg, Carinthia, Vorarlberg, Vienna and Tyrol. Global 2000 is therefore calling for an immediate ban on PFAS pesticides in a petition to the provincial governors and the federal government in Austria. Farmers should also be supported so that they can use alternative plant protection methods. In addition, TFA probably often gets into drinking water from "fluorinated gases (F-gases)", which are used as coolants. These should also be banned immediately, they said.

In May, environmentalists from PAN and Global 2000 had already detected TFA in 23 rivers and six wells in Austria and other EU countries.

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