PFOS: What you need to know about substance and pollution in Denmark

A drone view near Korsør, Zealand, phtographed in September. A number of residents in the town have ingested the substance PFOS, which may also have polluted other locations in Denmark.
A drone view near Korsør, Zealand, phtographed in September. A number of residents in the town have ingested the substance PFOS, which may also have polluted other locations in Denmark. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix
Several locations in Denmark are currently being checked for the presence of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid or PFOS, a human-made chemical previously used in products such as fabric protectors but now considered a pollutant.

High concentrations of the chemical were earlier found in wastewater from a treatment plant at Korsør on Zealand.

This week, ten municipalities submitted reports to the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration (Fødevarestyrelsen) after discovering that animals may have grazed on polluted ground, the agency confirmed to newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

“The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration has so far been contacted by a total of ten municipalities, in addition to Korsør, about localities with potential PFOS pollution. Activities in the areas are in the form of grazing cattle and sheep, haystacks and a put and take [artificial fishing, ed.] lake,” the agency’s environmental chemist Lulu Krüger wrote to the newspaper. The municipalities were not named.

Earlier this year, reports emerged that residents in Korsør had eaten meat from cattle that had been polluted with PFOS. That resulted in the pollution being passed on to 118 residents.

The pollution from the Korsør facility originates from foam used in fire extinguishers. Last month, locations were identified as potential PFOS pollution sites because they have been used in fire extinguishment training.

READ ALSO: Denmark appoints expert advisors after toxic chemical pollution

What is PFOS?

Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) is a human-made chemical fluorosurfactant which was used in production of products up until the 1990s but is now considered a pollutant.

The substance is very difficult to break down or dissolve, and has been used in a range of products including rainproof clothing and pizza boxes due to these properties.

However, the same properties make it difficult for humans and animals to break down if they ingest it. It can thereby by build up in the body, which can have long term health consequences.

PFOS has been linked to afflictions of the stomach and kidney, hormone imbalances and eye and skin irritation. It is also suspected of being a carcinogenic in cases of long term exposure.

Danish research has found it to reduce immunity and make children more susceptible to infections, and increase cholesterol in children and adults. It can also reduce fertility and harm pregnancy, according to another Danish research paper from 2019.

What risks are posed by spillages and pollution in Denmark?

Although the danger to the general population depends on how far the pollutant has spread, it has a wide range of health risks according to studies.

“We have tried to turn over as many stones as possible and there has been bad news under every single one. Danish studies over many years have placed PFOS in connection with some very serious health problems. The same applies to similar research abroad,” Phillippe Grandjean, professor in environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark, said to broadcaster DR.

Once the chemical enters groundwater or waterways it can have a long reach and will eventually find its way into oceans, DR writes.

That makes it important to fully investigate pollution with the chemical in Denmark, an expert told the broadcaster.

“PFOS was used for a lot of things until it was discovered there were health problems connected to the substance. There are therefore many places where it could potentially have polluted natural areas – we can only find out by testing liberally,” said Bjarne W. Strobel, professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Copenhagen.

A total of 145 locations across Denmark are to be tested for the chemical in the near future after being identified by regional authorities as former training sites for firemen.

All of Denmark’s water works are also under investigation to rule out pollution in drinking water.

“(Fire) extinguishment areas are simply hotspots because there are new firemen who every day have trained and sprayed foam. In things like clothes and pizza boxes, the PFOS ended up being burnt at an incineration facility and there could alternatively be small amounts in our waste water and drinking water,” Stobel told DR.

A meticulous search in locations with possible high amounts of the chemical is crucial, Grandjean warned in comments to the broadcaster.

“It’s important we thoroughly investigate these locations where than can be high concentrations of PFOS. Otherwise many situations like the one in Korsør could arise,” he said.


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