Low levels of 'forever chemicals' in the water, but we must be vigilant

Opinion: The good news is that we have low levels of 'forever chemicals' in the water, but we still need to be vigilant says Lokesh Padye and Shailja Data

Tap water filling glass

PFAS – per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – are a class of thousands of man-made chemicals used widely in everyday consumer items such as textiles, packaging, and cookware, popular for their water, grease and stain-repellent properties. However, the very properties that make PFAS so attractive to manufacturers are also what make them persist in the environment, earning them the moniker of ‘forever chemicals’. They are even found in remote locations on Earth because they do not break down easily.

We recently completed a study in which we took drinking water samples from 20 locations around the country, including suburbs in Auckland and other regions. To our pleasant surprise, the results revealed PFAS levels below some of the world’s strictest regulations. This is significant for the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders, especially in the context of widespread PFAS contamination globally.

Humans are exposed to PFAS in a variety of ways, including the ingestion of contaminated food and water and the use of consumer products containing PFAS. The research has shown that consumption of PFAS-contaminated drinking water is one of the major exposure pathways.Exposure to PFAS has been linked to serious health problems, including developmental defects, several types of cancer, weakened immunity, and hormone imbalances.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency in the US, at least 70 million Americans drink PFAS-contaminated water. The recently mapped data on global PFAS contamination of drinking water suggested Australia, China, Europe, and North America are PFAS hotspots relative to the rest of the world. The high detection of PFAS in water sources from Australia, a country similar to New Zealand with no PFAS manufacturing industry, was an alarming finding.

Because of the widespread contamination and associated health risks, PFAS in the environment has been declared a regulatory priority to prevent it from becoming the next public health emergency. Just in April this year, the US EPA issued landmark enforceable drinking water standards for PFAS in response to these concerns.


the results provide a snapshot of PFAS levels at a specific moment in time. PFAS concentrations in water can vary over time for lots of reasons, including weather conditions, seasonal variations, and human activities. 

Though the results from our study are undoubtedly positive news, they come with important caveats that warrant our attention and vigilance.

It’s crucial to note that the study did not encompass all towns and cities in New Zealand. Though the results are encouraging, they may not reflect the PFAS levels in areas not included in the study.

Moreover, the results provide a snapshot of PFAS levels at a specific moment in time. PFAS concentrations in water can vary over time for lots of reasons, including weather conditions, seasonal variations, and human activities. Thus, though the current results are reassuring, they do not account for potential fluctuations in PFAS levels.

Moreover, the study focused only on 30 specific PFAS out of the thousands that exist in the environment. Though these 30 compounds are among the most studied and monitored, it’s important to acknowledge that other PFAS may be present in our environment and need monitoring.

It’s crucial that we don’t become complacent. The absence of detectable PFAS in the majority of samples should not lead to a false sense of security. Regular and comprehensive monitoring of water quality is essential to ensure the continued safety of our drinking water.

As we celebrate this good news, let’s also recognise the importance of ongoing vigilance and continued investment in water quality monitoring and research. By proactively protecting our water resources, we can create a safer and healthier environment for future generations, aligning ourselves with the principles of Te Mana o te Wai – recognising the vital role of water in sustaining life and the value of maintaining its cleanliness and health.

The research described in the study was conducted in collaboration with Associate Professor Melanie Kah, Dr Erin Leitao, and Professor David Barker, Faculty of Science.

Lokesh Padhye is an associate professor in the Faculty of Engineering, and Shailja Data is a PhD candidate, Faculty of Science 

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, Low levels of ‘forever chemicals’ doesn’t mean we can wash our hands of them, 3 May, 2024

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Margo White I Research communications editor
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Email margo.white@auckland.ac.nz