Recent investigations have unearthed that the concentration of PFAS, also known as ‘forever chemicals’, surpasses the guidelines for drinking water globally.

PFAS, short for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are man-made chemicals widely used in consumer goods worldwide. However, in recent years, the enduring nature of PFAS, which can take millennia to decompose, has become a source of increasing concern among researchers.

The European Environment Agency (EEA) has linked these substances to a range of health issues, including liver damage, thyroid disorders, obesity, fertility complications, and cancer.

PFAS, commonly found in everyday items such as non-stick cookware, apparel, cosmetics, pesticides, and food packaging, have earned the nickname ‘forever chemical’ due to their persistent nature. Once PFAS compounds enter the environment or the human body, “they don’t degrade further,” state researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

In their global study, published in Nature Geoscience, the research team scrutinised PFAS contamination levels in surface and groundwater across the world, discovering that “much of our global source water exceeds PFAS safe drinking limits”.

Denis O’Carroll, the study’s lead author and a professor of engineering at UNSW, commented on the findings: “Many of our source waters are above PFAS regulatory limits. We already knew that PFAS is pervasive in the environment, but I was surprised to find out the large fraction of source waters that are above drinking water advisory recommendations.”

“We’re talking above five percent, and it goes over 50 percent in some cases,” O’Carroll added.

The study involved analysing PFAS data from various sources, including governmental reports, databases, and peer-reviewed studies, amassing over 45,000 data points spanning nearly two decades.

The research also uncovered “high concentrations” of PFAS in Australia, with numerous sites exceeding the advised levels for drinking water.

O’Carroll pointed out that while PFAS can be detected in source water like reservoirs, it doesn’t necessarily translate to drinking water, which undergoes treatment to reduce chemical content, including PFAS, before reaching our taps.

“However, some water providers, such as Sydney Water, don’t routinely test for the wide array of PFAS that might be present in our drinking water,” O’Carroll explained.

He reassured, “Drinking water is largely safe, and I don’t hesitate drinking it. I also don’t suggest that bottled water is better, because it doesn’t mean that they’ve done anything differently than what comes out of the tap. But I certainly think that monitoring PFAS levels and making the data easily available is worthwhile.”

The study underscores the potential underestimation of PFAS pollution in global water resources, attributed partly to the limited monitoring and regulation of the over 14,000 PFAS compounds and the unexpectedly high PFAS content in consumer products.

“There is a real unknown amount of PFAS that we’re not measuring in the environment,” O’Carroll remarked, suggesting that “commercial products like garments and food packaging have a lot more PFAS in them than we realise,” which likely leads to an underestimation of the environmental impact of PFAS.

The research team is now focused on further exploring the environmental levels of PFAS from commercial products and developing solutions to degrade PFAS in drinking water systems, along with predictive environmental models. These studies are expected to conclude by 2026.

O’Carroll issued a caution to manufacturers and consumers about the use of PFAS-containing products, urging, “We should have judicious use of some of these chemicals. Just because they’re available, doesn’t mean that we should use them.”

For the comprehensive study, click here.

New Food will continue to provide updates on developments related to the PFAS study.


Sam Allcock, a seasoned entrepreneur with over two decades of expertise in Food & Drink Editorial.

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