Drinking water contaminated with huge levels of toxic chemicals has been supplied to over 1,000 people, it has emerged.
Cambridge Water admitted it exposed residents in South Cambridgeshire to four times the legal limit of perfluorooctane sulphonate (PFOS) and did not tell them, according to The Guardian.
The water company said it removed the dangerous supply in June 2021, but did not reveal how long the water had been contaminated.
PFOS is a man-made chemical that has been linked to various health problems including higher cholesterol, suppressed immune response and low birthweight.
It is also known to be one of the “forever chemicals”, because it does not break down in the environment and can gradually filter through the ground throughout years, leaking into ground drinking water.
Jamie DeWitt, pharmacology and toxicology professor at East Carolina University, said: “People who have been consistently consuming water at [these levels] will have increased risk of certain types of diseases that have been linked to epidemiological studies … including changes in cholesterol… [and] reduced vaccine antibody responses.”
DeWitt added PFAS, forever chemicals from the same substances family, “have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer and those in utero or very young are at risk of developing health problems”.
According to local authorities, the aquifer found to have four times the Drinking Water Inspectorate’s limit of 100 nanograms per litre of water, has affected the villages of Great Shelford and Stapleford, and is believed to have also contaminated Sawston.
Tony Fletcher, associate professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the toxic levels “clearly grossly exceed” recommended levels – and warned PFOS builds up in the body and has a half life of three to five years.
Other health problems
Cambridge Water did not confirm how long people have been consuming the toxic water, but said tests from 2020 showed the levels were within the legal limit, without saying what those levels were. A company spokesperson insisted public health is their “top priority” and promised they will consistently carry out risk assessments.
But Philippe Grandjean, environmental health adjunct professor at Harvard, told The Guardian that the more this chemical gets absorbed into the body, the higher the risk of diseases such as endocrine disruption, type 2 diabetes and obesity.
“In regard to reproductive health, there’s a lesser chance of actually achieving pregnancy, and once a woman gets pregnant then there’s a greater likelihood of preterm birth and child that is low birthweight or lower than expected,” she added.
PFOS was used in firefighting foams between the late 1960s and the early 2000s at airfirelds and firefighting training centres, but Duxford airfield’s spokesperson said no illegal chemicals “are knowingly used anywhere across our estate” and that it has not used firefighting foam “for years”, in order to protect the aquifer under Duxford.
A spokesperson for the environment department told TLE that the Drinking Water Inspectorate does not comment on ongoing assessments – and said the Inspectorate is assessing information supplied by companies to decide whether any regulatory action is needed.
The spokesperson added the DWI wrote to water companies in October last year to inform them of additional requirements for sampling, testing and monitoring for PFAS in drinking water.
It comes after the DWI gave guidance to water firms in 2009 to make sure key PFOS and PFOA chemicals are considered in their risk assessments, according to the spokesperson.