TFA in water
Image by colbicrook5 from Pixabay

NGO BUND Finds TFA in Drinking Water in German Cities and Brussels

The largest amount of TFA, an HFO degradation product, was within 50% of the 2,200 ng/L guideline set by the Netherlands.

A new study of drinking (tap) water and mineral water in German cities and Brussels, Belgium, found several chemical pollutants, with trifluoracetic acid (TFA), an HFO degradation product, the most frequently discovered chemical.

The study was conducted by BUND (German Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation), an NGO, which reported the results on its website on April 23 in collaboration with BDEW (German Association of Energy and Water Industries).

TFA is widely considered an ultrashort-chain example of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), also known as “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment; it is formed in the atmosphere by the decomposition of HFO-1234yf (and other f-gases) and is also linked to the breakdown of pesticides and pharmaceuticals.

The BUND drinking water test revealed that the highest PFAS concentration – 1,100 ng/L of TFA – was measured in the tap water of the European Parliament in Brussels. In addition non-PFAS pollutants were discovered: melamine, a type of plastic, in several samples, and benzotriazole compounds, potential hormonal pollutants, in two samples. “Health guidelines were not exceeded in any sample,” said BUND.

BUND and BDEW are calling for manufacturers in both the chemical industry and retail to be held accountable: “Those who introduce pollutants into the environment must pay,” the organizations said. “Anyone who produces or sells PFAS is responsible and must bear the environmental and economic costs caused by this. Also to promote the development of environmentally friendly alternatives.” From the perspective of both associations, “legal measures to protect people, the environment and nature are now urgently needed. This necessarily includes a comprehensive ban on PFAS.”

BUND’s tests

BUND tested five mineral water and ten tap water samples from the cities of Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, Stuttgart, Osnabrück, Kiel, Burgdorf, Celle, Neustadt an der Weinstraße, Meschede and Brussels. Nine out of 10 tap water samples and three out of five mineral water samples contained at least one pollutant. TFA was found most frequently with concentrations between 50 and 1,100 ng/L in tap water and between 50 and 200 ng/L in mineral water.

The TFA levels were well below the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA) health guideline value for TFA of 60,000 ng/L or the advisory level of 10,000 ng/L. But they came within 50% of the stricter guideline of 2,200 ng/L set by the Dutch National Institute for Health and Environment (RIVM).

Starting in 2026, the new European drinking water limit of 100 ng/L will apply for the sum of 20 PFAS (not including TFA). In addition, from 2028, a drinking water limit of 20 ng/L will apply in Germany for the sum of four PFAS that are frequently found in humans: PFHxS, PFOA, PFOS, and PFNA (though TFA has also been found in human blood serum). There are no PFAS limits for mineral water, but a restriction on the entire group of PFAS substances is currently being discussed at the EU level.

In terms of health effects, the German Federal Office for Chemicals (Bundesstelle für Chemikalien or BfC) has informed the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) of its intention to propose linking reproductive toxicity to TFA. Moreover, Germany’s TFA water limits are based on studies of TFA’s effects on liver function in rats.

Growing levels of PFAS pollution is already leading to higher costs for water suppliers in some regions in order to be able to provide clean drinking water, said BUND. “Increasing pollutant inputs are putting a strain on raw water resources, which will make drinking water treatment more and more expensive,” noted Martin Weyand, BDEW’s General Manager. “An effective strategy is therefore necessary to prevent further future inputs of PFAS.”

The Guardian recently reported that rapidly rising levels of TFA are being found in drinking water, blood and rain, “causing alarm among experts.”

Chemical industry response

The chemical industry addressed the environmental deposition of TFA in an October 2021 study funded by the Global Forum for Advanced Climate Technologies (globalFACT), which represents f-gas producers Chemours, Honeywell, Arkema and Koura (and equipment manufacturer Daikin). The study concluded that “with the current knowledge of the effects of TFA on humans and ecosystems, the projected emissions through 2040 would not be detrimental.” But the study also acknowledged that “the major uncertainty in the knowledge of the TFA concentrations and their spatial distributions is due to uncertainties in the future projected emissions.”

 Chuck Allgood, Technical Fellow at U.S. HFO manufacturer Chemours, responded to a question about the link between HFO refrigerants and TFA and concerns about the proliferation and potential toxicity of TFA on May 1 at a University of Maryland (UMD) workshop called “Ultra-Low GWP Refrigerants for Refrigeration, Water Heating, and HVAC Applications,” sponsored by UMD, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy and Guidehouse. “We will follow the science and make decisions based on science,” he said, describing the definition of PFAS in Europe, which includes HFOs and TFA, as “very broad.”

While acknowledging that TFA forms from the breakdown of HFO-1234yf in the environment, Allgood called TFA a “naturally occurring substance” with 95–99% of it “found in low levels throughout the Earth that has been there for hundreds of years, well before the industrial age.” However, Canadian researchers have determined that there are “no compelling scientific arguments” to support the existence of naturally formed TFA. He noted that there are other artificial sources of TFA, such as pesticides and pharmaceuticals, “so the question is what’s refrigerants’ role in the future of TFA, and we will continue to follow that.”

“Anyone who produces or sells PFAS is responsible and must bear the environmental and economic costs caused by this. Also to promote the development of environmentally friendly alternatives.”

BUND and BDEW

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