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Experts raise concerns over potentially toxic chemical increasingly found in drinking water: 'We need consistent, precautionary regulation'

"Everywhere you look it's increasing."

"Everywhere you look it's increasing."

Photo Credit: iStock

There's another forever chemical to pay attention to alongside PFAS.

What's happening?

The Guardian recently reported rising levels of a persistent and potentially harmful forever chemical called TFA, or trifluoroacetic acid, which is increasingly found globally in drinking water, rainwater, and human blood.

TFA, which the Guardian described as a type of PFAS, is a class of human-created chemicals used widely in pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and certain dyes. The substances effectively do not break down in nature — at least not for thousands of years — and, like other PFAS, TFA is sparking significant health concerns among experts, though the specific risks and the degree of risks are still being assessed.

"Everywhere you look it's increasing. There's no study where the concentration of TFA hasn't increased," David Behringer, an environmental consultant, told the Guardian.

Why is this trend with TFA concerning?

Remember the hole in the ozone layer? It was caused by toxic chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) typically used in refrigeration, along with other ozone-depleting substances. These were eventually banned, and our ozone has significantly improved. However, "F-gases" used to replace CFCs are a significant source of TFA that may pose potentially serious health risks to humans, per the Guardian.

As the outlet reports, chemical industry groups question the scientific certainty around levels of risk and point to the value of CFC alternatives. They cite past studies that found low levels of risk or natural sources of TFA. However, even one of these studies, from 2016, said that TFA from degrading chemicals "warrants continued attention, in part because of its very long environmental lifetime." 

TFA has been linked to fertility issues. The Guardian report mentioned German regulators recently submitted a request to classify TFA as reprotoxic, meaning it can harm human reproductive function, fertility, and fetal development.

TFA is also complicated to remove from water, and finding large-scale solutions will be expensive. "The logical course is to stop the input," said Behringer.

It is crucial to stop the input. Urban communities typically face a disproportionate burden of contaminated water. Research has shown that exposure to some forever chemicals can affect children's behavior, growth, and learning abilities.

What is being done about TFA?

The Guardian reported that in response to growing concerns, Denmark and Germany have set limits for TFA in drinking water, though countries like the U.K. have yet to follow suit.

The German Environment Agency recommends using natural refrigerants as an alternative. "To reduce the release of TFA into the environment, we need consistent, precautionary regulation," said Dirk Messner, the agency's president, per the Guardian.

While breaking down TFA is difficult, as was the case with other PFAS, scientific breakthroughs have occurred. Scientists recently discovered that adding hydrogen to water significantly improves ultraviolet light's effectiveness against breaking down PFAS.

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