Read the full article by Rachel Salvidge (The Guardian)

“A chemicals company is releasing large quantities of a ‘forever chemical’ described as being ‘very persistent, mobile and toxic’ into the River Wyre in Lancashire each year, and is not breaking any rules.

Earlier this year, the Guardian and Watershed Investigations revealed that effluent coming from the site of AGC Chemicals Europe in Thornton-Cleveleys could contain about 700 types of perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS).

PFAS is an umbrella term for thousands of human-made substances known as ‘forever chemicals’ because they will not break down in the environment for thousands of years. Some are also known to be toxic and can accumulate in the human body.

The Environment Agency has now released its evaluation of a PFAS known as EEA-NH4 that was found in the effluent, and said it was ‘very persistent’ and ‘mobile’ in the environment, as well as ‘toxic’ because it was classified as ‘reprotoxic category 2’, meaning there was evidence to suggest it could disrupt sexual function, fertility and development in humans.

Using data supplied by AGC Chemicals Europe, including monitoring data and effluent volumes released into the River Wyre, the agency estimated that an average of about 783kg of EEA-NH4 is discharged into the river each year.

The report highlights multiple gaps in knowledge, including whether, as with many PFAS, the substance builds up in humans and animals. ‘It is not possible to draw a conclusion on the bioaccumulation potential of EEA-NH4 in air-breathing organisms in the absence of data on the human clearance time or better predictive methods,’ it states.

Prof Ian Cousins, an environmental chemist at Stockholm University, said: ‘EEA-NH4 is very persistent and mobile similar to GenX used by Chemours, which has been found in the Arctic, and it’s likely that EEA-NH4 will also be measured there as emissions continue. It will be transported by ocean currents, but even air emissions can result in long-range atmospheric transport.’

Dr David Megson, a senior lecturer in chemistry and environmental forensics at Manchester Metropolitan University, said the case highlighted ‘how we desperately need improved regulation and management of PFAS.

‘Industry continues to innovate and develop new PFAS to replace those that have been banned. However, tougher regulations need to be put in place to ensure that these replacement chemicals are not also going to pose a risk to the environment and human health.

‘This should not be at the detriment to industry, but we should use it as an opportunity for collaboration to develop safer sustainable replacements for PFAS.’

EEA-NH4 is just one of more than 10,000 chemicals classed as PFAS and currently there are only restrictions on the manufacture and use of two – perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – because they have been studied closely and linked with a range of diseases including cancers and thyroid problems.

AGC Chemicals Europe, which produces polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), said it ‘has never used PFOS, and PFOA was voluntarily phased out over a decade ago.’

In 2022, Watershed Investigations found discharges of 12,000 nanograms a litre of PFOA to the Wyre estuary coming from the site where AGC Chemicals is based. AGC said it did not use or manufacture PFOA, and that any PFOA in the effluent may have come from historical usage at the site. AGC’s discharge is not illegal.

Studies have also shown that some PFAS can disrupt normal reproductive function in women through altering hormone secretion, the menstrual cycle, and fertility, but any effects of the emissions of thousands of other PFAS remain a mystery.

Cousins said: ‘We know little about the consequences of the releases of the hundreds of other PFAS because we only understand the toxicities, and other properties, of a few PFAS.’

A spokesperson for AGC Chemicals Europe said the company was in ‘full compliance with UK and EU regulations’ and that it ‘sets the highest standards for itself as a responsible member of the local community and a sustainable business. We welcome recent assessments by the Environment Agency to protect and improve the environment and, as part of this, to address the uses of PFAS in the UK.’

They said the ‘evaluations conducted by the Environment Agency do not indicate that the substances used in our manufacturing processes have caused environmental harm. Ecological monitoring of the River Wyre which has been conducted for over 40 years shows no significant impact of AGC Chemicals Europe emissions to the River Wyre estuary.

‘We take our responsibilities for the management of substances used in and emitted from our manufacturing process extremely seriously. We are actively developing and improving processes that save energy and further reduce emissions from our process. AGC Chemicals Europe has invested significantly in abatement equipment to minimise emissions and we have committed additional investment to further reduce emissions by the end of 2024.'”…