22 March 2023
Water and Contaminants of Emerging Concern
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The UN 2023 Water Conference presents an important opportunity for the UN to address PFAS under its current Water Action Decade (2018-2028) agenda.

Prevention, public education, and industry’s accountability are among the recommended measures.

By Callum Clench, Executive Director, International Water Resources Association (IWRA)

The first UN Water Conference since 1977 convenes in New York, US, this week.  To describe it as overdue would be an understatement. Water has long been neglected by policymakers partly because it has been relatively successful in regulating itself. Historically oceans and geology have served as effective filtration systems. It is only recently such complacency has been shaken. The fact that it has taken nearly 50 years for nations to reconvene a meeting focused solely on water speaks to a lack of understanding of some of the water quality problems that prevail.

The world of water is awash with depressing statistics. Nearly a half of all the world’s wastewater is untreated. Two billion people drink water which has fecal contamination. Over one billion people are at risk in the current cholera contagion. Different agencies will have their own agenda.  Frustratingly, contaminants of emerging concern – a misnomer since there has been an awareness of this form of pollution for nearly half a century – are frequently forgotten. Time is no longer on our side as we begin to fully comprehend the implications.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are associated primarily with pesticides and pharmaceuticals but can also be found in everything from plastic packaging to semiconductors. Research has established the link between PFAS and chronic toxicity, cancers, endocrine (hormone) disruption in humans and animals, and the development of bacterial pathogen resistance. As they are discarded in sewage and waste, they enter the water cycle.

PFAS, or “forever chemicals” as they are also known, are useful due to their durability.  However, this also makes them extremely difficult to treat and remove using conventional water treatment processes. While scientists and water resource professionals on the frontline have been trying to grapple with the science, too often policymakers have been snoozing as this human and environmental crisis slowly unfolds. 

The UN 2023 Water Conference presents an important opportunity for the UN to address PFAS under its current Water Action Decade (2018-2028) agenda. Here is how.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, Benjamin Franklin is reported to have once said. The case for prevention has to be made unambiguously. The cost of PFAS to human health and environmental remediation is colossal. The European Commission says that the estimated health cost to Europe alone is in the region of EUR 52 to EUR 84 billion annually. It was one of the motivations for a number of EU member States, led by Germany, to submit a proposal to ban PFAS last month. The challenge, however, is that consumers are wedded to products with PFAS – from cosmetics to smart phones. Shifting behaviors is only likely to be achieved through a second key measure – public education.

There is a woeful lack of awareness about forever chemicals among informed audiences, let alone the wider public. Few consumers understand their exposure to PFAS in an everyday behavior such as drinking a cup of coffee. Through public education pressure could be brought to bear on industry to innovate in the same way that climate change action has been driven by consumer behavior. Given the long-term cost of PFAS to the public purse, generating awareness and fostering behavior change would seem a good return on investment.

Third, PFAS are pervasive, but should it be the taxpayer who picks up the cost of remediation? The principle of accountability has to be established. Policymakers would do well to agree on a framework by which they can hold industry better to account for the migration of such chemicals into the water cycle – and give a warning shot for future action. As we have seen, consensus on complex environmental issues such as climate action is notoriously difficult to achieve, but contaminant-specific action can be achieved as was the case of the highly effective 1987 Montreal Protocol which, for example, initiated the phase-out of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Science has made significant strides in recent years. The technology to filter out PFAS is limited but exists, along with the molecular tools for detection. Alternatives are either out there or in development, but their impacts also need to be better understood. Policymakers meeting in New York need to face up to this long-term, ubiquitous challenge. Afterall, they would do well to remember another of Franklin’s metaphors: “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”

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