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Research identifies 134 ‘forever chemicals’ hotspots across Switzerland

Goms valley
In Switzerland, researchers found the greatest concentration of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a family of about 10,000 chemicals valued for their non-stick and detergent properties, in the Goms Valley in canton Valais. Keystone / Jean-christophe Bott

Pollutants known as “forever chemicals”, which don’t break down in the environment, build up in the body and may be toxic, have been found at 134 sites in Switzerland, a European mapping project has revealed.

In Switzerland, the mapExternal link showed the greatest concentration of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a family of about 10,000 chemicals valued for their non-stick and detergent properties, in the Goms Valley in canton Valais.

A measurement carried out in 2021 revealed a concentration of 14,569 nanograms of PFAS per kilogramme of soil. The news was reported by German-speaking media that took part in the “Forever Pollution Project”.External link

PFAS have made their way into water, soils and sediments from a wide range of consumer products, firefighting foams, waste and industrial processes.

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The newspapers attributed the Goms pollution to ski wax. Valais authorities reject this theory, however. The pollution resulted from the use of fire-fighting foam at local training sites, they say.

In 2014, a measurement carried out in Langenthal, canton Bern, revealed the second highest PFAS recording (5,684 nanograms per kg of soil), followed by Rifferswil, canton Zurich (5,636 nanograms).

Pollution hotspots

According to the report, a concentration of 100 nanograms of PFAS per litre of drinking water is considered problematic for human health. The 134 sites mentioned in the report and described as “PFAS hotspots” by the newspapers all have concentration above 100 nanograms.

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The Forever Pollution Project recorded high levels of PFAS at thousands of sites across Europe. Belgium is home to the highest levels of pollution, where PFAS was found in groundwater at concentrations up to 73m ng/l around 3M’s PFAS manufacturing site in Zwijndrecht, Flanders.

In the Netherlands, an accident involving PFAS in firefighting foam has contaminated land around Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, resulting in soils containing extremely high levels of PFOS. Some airports and military sites in Germany have been found to have similar problems.

In the UK, the highest levels of PFAS were found in a discharge from a chemicals plant on the River Wyre, above Blackpool. Fish in the river have been found to contain high levels of PFAS.

Health issues

Two PFAS have been linked to an array of health problems. PFOA has been connected with kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol and pregnancy-induced hypertension. PFOS has been associated with reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, and thyroid disease. At lower levels PFAS have been associated with immunotoxicityExternal link.

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Environmental chemist Martin Scheringer from the Swiss federal technology institute ETH Zurich described the project’s results as serious but said water polluted by PFAS typically does not cause acute health problems. However, PFAS could accumulate in the body and cause chronic diseases. 

The Federal Office for the Environment also describes PFAS as problematic. The PFAS measurement data from 2021 showed that these substances are also present in Switzerland in significant proportions – in particular in locations where firefighters train or at landfills.

Up to now, Switzerland has set a maximum value for certain PFAS in drinking water. According to the Federal Office for Food Safety and Veterinary Affairs, this limit must be reviewed on the basis of a new assessment of PFAS by the European Food Safety Authority.

In mid-December, canton Valais banned the consumption of fish from the Stockalper canal between Collombey-Muraz and Lake Geneva as high PFAS measurements had been observed.

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