River Seine
River Seine, Paris, France, where PAN Europe found 2.8mcg/L of TFA; image by Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Paris, Seine -- 2014 -- 1321” / CC BY-SA 4.0

Study Finds TFA in Water throughout Europe, Linked Mainly to Pesticides and F-Gases

In four rivers, TFA levels detected by PAN Europe surpass the drinking water limit established in the Netherlands.

A new study has found trifluoroacetic acid (TFA), an atmospheric degradation product of HFO-1234yf and other f-gases, in samples from 23 rivers and lakes and from six aquifers across Europe at levels that in four of the rivers surpass the 2.2mcg/L TFA drinking water limit established in the Netherlands and that frequently exceed the proposed EU Drinking Water Directive limit of 0.5mcg/L for total PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances).

A report based on the study, “TFA in Water: Dirty PFAS Legacy Under the Radar,” was published in May by the European Pesticide Action Network (PAN Europe), a Brussels-based NGO, and its partner organizations in 10 countries: Austria (Global 2000), Belgium (Nature & Progrès), Bulgaria (Via Pontica Foundation), Croatia (Earth Trek), France (Générations Futures), Germany (BUND and PAN Germany), Luxembourg (Mouvement Écologique), Netherlands (PAN Netherlands), Spain (Ecologistas en Acción) and Sweden (Swedish Society for Nature Preservation).

The 10 organizations collected water samples in their respective countries in April, and the samples were analyzed by the Water Technology Centre in Karlsruhe, Germany. The report likened its findings on TFA to the widespread presence of longer-chain PFAS in Europe reported by journalists in the Forever Pollution Project.

In the EU, TFA is considered an ultrashort-chain (two carbon) PFAS under the scientifically endorsed OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) definition. PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” for their durability in nature, encompass a broad class of more than 14,000 fluorinated chemicals used in numerous consumer products; some longer-chain PFAS, such as PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), have been deemed toxic to human health.

According to the report, the PAN Europe study detected TFA in European water at levels ranging between 0.370mcg/L and 3.3mcg/L, with an average of 1.18mcg/L. The average concentration was slightly higher in rivers and lakes (surface water) at 1.22 mcg/L than in aquifers (groundwater) at 1.025mcg/L.

The TFA levels found in surface and groundwater represent the largest known area-wide water contamination by a manmade chemical,” the report said. “Adding to this is the certainty that pollution will increase with each passing day unless decisive action is taken to curb TFA inputs.”

PAN Europe urged a “swift ban on PFAS pesticides and f-gases” – the two largest contributors to TFA in the environment, citing a 2023 study by the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA).

The German study calls the breakdown of pesticides “the dominant source” of TFA pollution in rural areas in Germany, with f-gases coming in second. But from a global perspective, “f-gases from refrigerants are likely to have an even higher pollution potential,” said the PAN Europe report. Other smaller sources of TFA include pharmaceuticals, sewage treatment, liquid manure and industrial emissions.

Certain f-gases that are emitted from cooling systems into the atmosphere undergo photolytic conversion to TFA (100% conversion for HFO-1234yf over two weeks) and then enter the water cycle through rainfall all over the world.

The German study found that pesticides contributed 434 metric tons of TFA per year in Germany, followed by f-gases with 96 metric tons, and sewage treatment and liquid manure each contributing around 20 metric tons annually. UBA experts calculated that in 303 out of 400 German districts, the dominant pathway for TFA into water bodies was the use of pesticides, followed by rainfall (51 districts), wastewater treatment plants (38 districts) and industrial contamination (nine districts).

The PAN Europe study also analyzed for the presence of a composite of 24 PFAS, including TFA, PFOA and PFOS (perfluoroooctane sulfonic acid).

The European Fluorocarbons Technical Committee (EFCTC), which represents chemical manufacturers, did not respond to a request for comment on the PAN Europe study.

TFA in 98% of samples

Other highlights of the PAN Europe report:

  • All water samples analyzed contained PFAS, and more than 98% of the total PFAS detected was TFA.
  • Four of the surface water (river) samples had TFA levels exceeding the 2.2mcg/L TFA limit set by the Netherlands: Aisne (France), 2.3mcg/L; Mehaigne (Belgium), 2.5mcg/L; Seine (France), 2.8mcg/L); and Elbe (Germany), 3.3mcg/L. In the Netherlands itself, TFA was found in the Drentsche Aa river at 1.6mcg/L.
  • Seventy-nine percent of the samples had TFA levels exceeding the proposed EU Drinking Water Directive limit of 0.5mcg/L for total PFAS, which takes effect in 2026; none of the other 23 PFAS analyzed exceeded this limit.
  • The average level of the sum of the other 23 PFAS was .0175mcg/l.

“The extent of this contamination is shocking,” the report said. “It is a result of political failure at many levels.”

The report urged:

  • A ban on PFAS pesticides under the EU Pesticide Regulation, including metabolites such as TFA that are vPvM (very persistent, very mobile) substances.
  • Implementation of the EU’s general PFAS restriction under its REACH Regulation.
  • Categorization of TFA as a “priority hazardous substance” under the EU Water Framework Directive.
  • EU-wide environmental limits and monitoring for TFA.

The report noted that organohalogen compounds, which include TFA and other PFAS, are listed at the top of the Water Framework Directive’s non-exhaustive list of key pollutants (Annex VIII). Consequently, “the pollution by TFA should have been recognized and combated due to the monitoring obligations in the Water Framework Directive,” the report said.

The report also pointed out that the amount of TFA in the environment has experienced a steady increase “that has been going largely unnoticed by the public for decades, but which has been predicted or described by scientific experts since the 1990s and has already materialized.” For example, in Germany, the measured TFA levels in rainwater have increased fourfold in two decades, according to a 2020 study.

Moreover, the report explained, the narrative that ultrashort-chain PFAS like TFA are “harmless” has been undermined by a 2021 study investigating TFA’s reproductive toxicity in rabbits. In this study, eye malformations in litters occurred in all three dose groups of rabbits administered TFA, reminiscent of the similar malformations in rats and humans associated with exposure to PFOA uncovered by U.S. attorney Robert Bilott. Based on animal studies, Germany has informed the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) of its intention to propose linking reproductive toxicity to TFA.

The reports said that TFA cannot be removed from water by filters (such as activated carbon) or ozonation; it can only be removed by reverse osmosis, an expensive technology that “requires more resources, leads to higher energy costs, and raises the unresolved issue of disposing of the resulting concentrates.”

As a follow-up to its study, PAN Europe reported that it has started to collect drinking water samples (tap water and bottled water) from different European countries to be analyzed for TFA and other PFAS. “The results will be presented as soon as they are available,” the report said.

Another NGO, BUND (German Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation), recently published a study of drinking (tap) water and mineral water in German cities and Brussels, Belgium, finding several chemical pollutants, with TFA, the most frequently discovered chemical.

In the U.S., a panel of scientists recently discussed health concerns associated with TFA at the ATMOsphere America 2024 conference, organized by ATMOsphere, publisher of NaturalRefrigerants.com.

The TFA levels found in surface and groundwater represent the largest known area-wide water contamination by a manmade chemical.”

PAN Europe

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