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Government investigation uncovers troubling details about several unmonitored landfills: 'Almost certainly leaching those chemicals directly into the environment'

"Workers, local residents and businesses have a right to know if their workplace or local area is polluted with toxic chemicals."

"Workers, local residents and businesses have a right to know if their workplace or local area is polluted with toxic chemicals."

Photo Credit: iStock

Government agencies investigated unmonitored landfills in England and revealed that 17 contained toxic "forever chemicals," known as PFAS, that could contaminate drinking water. 

What happened?

As the Guardian explained, consultants hired by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Environment Agency took samples from closed and operational landfills to better understand what chemicals were potentially leaching into the environment. 

Samples taken over 10 months from 2021 to 2022 revealed concerning results

Contractors recorded levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) — another dangerous synthetic compound in the same class of chemicals as PFAS — at 26,900 nanograms per liter in one sample, which is 260 times higher than the recommended safe limit set by the Drinking Water Inspectorate in England

However, the government groups didn't know the location of the problematic landfills because the contractors working for them only provided general data on PFAS levels in the samples.

"How can action be taken by the Environment Agency and others to deal with the contamination of local groundwater and soil if they don't know the source of it? Workers, local residents and businesses have a right to know if their workplace or local area is polluted with toxic chemicals," Dr. Shubhi Sharma, scientific research assistant at campaign group Chem Trust, told the Guardian.

Why are PFAS in landfills concerning?

The Environment Agency explained that landfill leachate — formed when rainwater filters through waste and draws out chemicals from buried trash — is a "potentially polluting liquid," per the news outlet

If leachate is improperly managed and treated, it can contaminate the groundwater and surface water near landfills.

Humans or animals exposed to water polluted by PFAS may face serious health problems, such as reproductive issues, poor immune health, endocrine dysfunction, and certain types of cancers, as reported by Mongabay

Forever chemicals have been found on virtually every surface of the planet, including in drinking water, food packaging, industrial sludge used in farming, ski resorts, and even in the remote waters of the Arctic Ocean. 

Since PFAS spread easily through the air and water and never break down, it's unsurprising that they've also contaminated landfill sites. 

While operational landfills have containment systems to prevent leachate from leaking into groundwater, closed landfills usually don't have these systems and lack accurate waste storage records, as the Guardian detailed. 

Kate Spencer, a professor of environmental geochemistry at Queen Mary University and expert in historic coastal landfills, told the Guardian, "If the landfills aren't lined, then they are almost certainly leaching those chemicals directly into the environment."

What's being done about it?

The Environment Agency is collaborating with the landfill industry to better understand the hazards of the chemicals, and Defra will release a report on the findings. 

3M, one of the largest producers of PFAS, announced it would phase out the chemicals by 2025.

In addition, the Biden administration is requiring municipal water systems to remove six toxic chemicals, including PFAS, from water supplies. 

The most effective way to protect ourselves and the environment from these chemicals is by reducing the use of products that contain PFAS. Nonstick cookware, water-resistant fabrics and beauty products, and plastic or grease-resistant food packaging are some of the worst offenders. 

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