Switzerland relies on groundwater for 80 percent of its drinking water supply, but recent findings have raised concerns about the presence of “forever chemicals” in this vital resource.
These potentially harmful chemical additives, known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), have been detected in nearly half of Swiss groundwater samples collected from over 500 monitoring stations by the National Groundwater Observatory (NAQUA).
While the prevalence of PFAS in Switzerland’s main drinking water source is widespread, it’s important to note that only one monitoring station exceeded the Swiss regulatory limits, according to the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN).
PFAS, aptly dubbed “forever chemicals,” encompass a broad category of synthetic chemicals often utilized for their non-stick or stain-repellent properties. These compounds earned their moniker due to their remarkable resistance to environmental breakdown.
However, their persistence in the environment raises concerns about their potential health impacts, including links to conditions such as cancer, thyroid disease, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. PFAS can enter the human body through water, food, and even the air.
While Switzerland has imposed bans on some PFAS, remnants of these chemicals persist in the environment. This underscores the importance of continued monitoring and remediation efforts.
Groundwater, the focus of this investigation, is freshwater that resides below the earth’s surface, contained in porous rocks or sediment known as aquifers. It plays a pivotal role in meeting 80 percent of Switzerland’s drinking water needs.
In 2021, the FOEN and NAQUA embarked on an analysis of Swiss groundwater samples for 26 different PFAS compounds. The results, published on September 12, revealed the presence of 13 PFAS types at nearly half of the monitoring stations.
Notably, the highest concentrations were associated with PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate), which has been mostly banned in Switzerland since 2011. This particular PFAS variety poses the greatest health risks and was historically used as a protective coating for textiles, including carpets and leather.
Switzerland has established safe limits for PFAS concentrations in groundwater, set between 0.3 and 0.5 micrograms per liter, with a limit of three distinct PFAS types per sample. As mentioned earlier, these limits were exceeded at only one monitoring station.
The introduction of PFAS into drinking water sources can occur through various means. Notably, firefighting foams containing PFAS have been identified as a major contributor to PFAS contamination in groundwater.
These foams are frequently used during fire extinguishing exercises at training areas, industrial facilities, reservoirs, and railways, potentially leaching PFAS into the soil. Other sources of PFAS contamination in groundwater include landfills and wastewater.
Switzerland is currently evaluating whether an action plan is necessary to mitigate human and environmental exposure to these persistent chemicals.
In the European Union (EU), regulations regarding PFAS are evolving. While certain types of PFAS are restricted, a comprehensive ban is pending approval.
The European Commission has proposed a complete ban on PFAS, though some manufacturers are resisting this proposal. Regulatory bodies are scheduled to vote on this legislation in the coming year, with potential implementation by 2026.
Recent investigations have highlighted widespread PFAS contamination in Europe and the UK, with particularly dense contamination sites identified in Belgium, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and parts of France and Italy.
In the UK, groundwater monitoring from 2014 to 2019 detected PFAS in nearly 40 percent of tested sites. France has also stepped up its monitoring efforts, mandating the surveillance of 20 different types of PFAS following a report that criticized the country’s previous monitoring practices.