The concentration of PFAS in drinking water is too high in parts of the Netherlands and must be reduced. This is what RIVM writes in an advisory to the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management (IenW). Especially in the western Netherlands, where drinking water is extracted from river water, the drinking water often contains more PFAS than RIVM recommends. The report is the first national overview of PFAS in Dutch drinking water.
Minister Mark Harbers (IenW, VVD) wants to include the advisory as a legal quality requirement for drinking water, he said in a reply to the House of Representatives. This means that the drinking water companies will in future be asked to remove PFAS from the drinking water. The minister also wants to include the new limit values for PFAS in the assessment of permits for companies that discharge PFAS. Rijkswaterstaat, environmental services, provinces and municipalities are responsible for these permits.
Drinking water companies will do everything “where possible” to reduce PFAS in drinking water, says a spokesman for VEWIN, the umbrella organization for drinking water companies. At the same time, the drinking water companies are calling on the minister for a total ban on the production, use and discharge of PFAS. “That the drinking water companies must remove PFAS is contrary to the EU’s environmental principle that the polluter pays,” says VEWIN in a response. “What doesn’t end up in the drinking water sources, the drinking water companies don’t have to clean.”
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PFAS is a collective term for a group of fluorine-containing substances that hardly break down in nature. The substances can end up in the environment during the production of substances such as Teflon, during waste treatment and when PFAS-containing substances are used as extinguishing foam.
PFAS are harmful to health. At very high exposure, a correlation has been seen with kidney and testicular cancer. Prolonged exposure to low concentrations can weaken the immune system. This could mean that people get sick earlier or react less well to vaccines. The level of exposure via food and drinking water falls in the latter category in the Netherlands.
Also read: Researchers: PFAS is not as easy to break down as thought
The RIVM emphasizes that it is safe to drink tap water everywhere in the Netherlands. People do not ingest too much PFAS via drinking water alone. People consume too much PFAS through food, which is five to six times more than through drinking water, says drinking water researcher Monique van der Aa from RIVM. So why not tackle food first? Van der Aa: “Drinking water is a local product, we have a responsibility for that. Food flows are international and are also regulated at European level. The standards for this will be tightened at European level.”
The net exposure to PFAS in the Netherlands is too high and drinking water contributes to this. Van der Aa: “The concentration of PFAS in drinking water must be reduced, and you must not wait. That is our main message.”
The concentration of PFAS was too high in half of the drinking water samples examined. These often came from the western Netherlands, because rivers from which the extraction takes place are often directly contaminated with PFAS, for example through discharges. In the eastern part of the Netherlands, drinking water is more often extracted from groundwater. But also there, the RIVM found too much PFAS in every ten water samples.
In the water at eight pumping stations in the western Netherlands, the RIVM occasionally observed such high concentrations that the consumption of clean drinking water is already approaching what is internationally considered safe for the immune system. RIVM immediately contacted the responsible drinking water companies and recommended measures to reduce the concentrations of PFAS.
The concentration of PFAS in Dutch drinking water everywhere complies with the European drinking water directive, which came into force in 2021. RIVM nevertheless assesses the exposure as too high based on a recommendation from the European food safety organization EFSA. It concluded in 2020 that people should consume no more than 4.4 nanograms (billion grams) of PFAS per kilogram of body weight per week to rule out negative effects on the immune system.
In 2017, the WHO recommended that a maximum of twenty percent of this should come from drinking water. The remaining eighty percent can come from other sources such as food. RIVM has adopted both recommendations and applied them to the Dutch situation.