The poison of the century PFAS can be detected at more than 1500 locations in Germany. Research by NDR, WDR and SZ. The problem with the industrially produced chemicals is therefore much greater than previously known.
You cannot smell, taste or see the poison. It is suspected of causing cancer, infertility and weakening of the immune system. And once it gets into the environment, it stays there. For a very long time. We are talking about so-called PFAS, perfluorinated and polyfluorinated chemicals, a group of more than 10,000 man-made substances.
Diverse applications – wide distribution
PFAS are water, grease and dirt-repellent and are used almost everywhere: in rain jackets and pans, but also in chain grease, dental floss, burger paper, cosmetics and ski wax. The substances do not occur in nature and cannot be quickly degraded by water, light or bacteria. This means that the more PFAS are produced and get into the environment, the more they accumulate and could make animals and humans sick.
So far, the public has mainly discussed a few PFAS hotspots. About fields in Rastatt in Baden-Württemberg, for example, where allegedly contaminated paper sludge was distributed. Or via Düsseldorf Airport, where fire-extinguishing foam containing PFAS flowed into the ground and groundwater during a major fire.
Note d. Red.: Since publication, we have adjusted some dates due to organizational errors. As a result, the number of contaminations has once again increased slightly.
In Germany alone more than 1500 places contaminated
well have NDR, WDR and SZ found more than 1500 places polluted with PFAS for the first time in Germany, including more than 300 hotspots. Together with 15 European partner media, the reporters in the “Forever Pollution Project” have localized more than 17,000 locations with relevant PFAS pollution throughout Europe, including a good 2000 hotspots with significant risks to human health.
Five European countries, including Germany, proposed a good two weeks ago to ban most of the dangerous substances after a transitional period. The German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke says in the conversation with the ARD political magazine Panorama, that the entire group of PFAS substances would have to be fundamentally reviewed and the dangerous substances banned, “because we can’t afford to continue releasing them into the environment on this scale – with partially unknown consequences, but with the certainty that they will stay with us for decades or centuries will accompany”.
The cost of cleaning up this widespread contamination is astronomical. A study by the Nordic Council of Ministers estimates the costs for Europe alone at 17 billion dollars. According to the study, the annual costs for treating the health consequences in Europe are even higher.
Hardly any renovations so far
In Germany, the authorities have so far only started to clean up the very few cases of damage. In 2020, the federal government wrote that the remediation was completed in less than one percent of all suspected PFAS cases. Federal Environment Minister Lemke calls the extent of the damage frightening – also because a clean-up of PFAS is “almost impossible”. “And that’s why it’s such a big problem, and that’s why we have to get to the point where we limit it.”
In many of the cases collected, the authorities apparently did not even inform the local population. The Hamburg register of contaminated sites includes around 50 areas contaminated with PFAS, but apparently not a single resident has been informed so far. “So far there has been no relevant threat or direct concern of citizens from PFAS-contaminated areas that would have triggered such an information obligation,” writes the city on request.
In Saarland, too, the population is only informed if they are “directly affected or endangered”. In Saxony, up to 56 areas are to be examined for PFAS this year. So far, according to the state government, citizens have not been actively informed.
Where the population was informed in the past, this was done via press releases on the authorities’ websites or flyers in mailboxes. Occasional information events were also held on more severe contamination, for example in Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Bremen. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania writes that “no PFAS monitoring is carried out. Accordingly, the citizens are not informed”.
There are enough places where authorities in Germany could look for PFAS. Numerous scientific publications suggest, for example, that the water and soil in the vicinity of certain industrial sites could be contaminated with PFAS. Authorities in various US states and in France are therefore specifically looking for PFAS residues in the vicinity of such locations.
No systematic investigations
So far, this has not been done systematically in Germany. Only individual authorities, such as the State Agency for Nature, Environment and Consumer Protection in North Rhine-Westphalia, regularly test for PFAS residues in the water near such locations.
NDR, WDR and SZ have therefore transferred the criteria used in the USA and France to Germany as far as possible. As a result, the reporters have identified several hundred places where soil or groundwater could also be polluted. Often no measurements have been taken at these points. Across Europe, the “Forever Pollution Project” has even identified more than 20,000 such potentially contaminated sites.
These include numerous airports and military sites that have historically used PFAS-containing firefighting foam. Sewage treatment plants and landfills are also affected, in which PFAS-containing waste water and objects collect – because so far it has been difficult to filter out the toxins or burn them, even with particularly expensive processes. There are also industries that partially use PFAS or raw materials contaminated with PFAS, such as the textile industry, metal finishing or waste paper processing companies.
have in Germany NDR, WDR and SZ asked a total of around 1,000 of these locations whether they had tested the water or soil for PFAS – most of them have not yet taken any measurements.
PFAS contamination can be detected in more and more sewage treatment plants.
Six more production sites
According to the research, there are also six factories in Germany that produce PFAS – according to the survey, that is more than in any other country in Europe. In and around these factories there is probably the greatest risk of massive environmental pollution. These factories are located in Bad Wimpfen (Solvay), in Frankfurt (Daikin), in Leverkusen (Lanxess) and in the Bavarian chemical park Gendorf near Burgkirchen an der Alz, where three PFAS producers have settled (3M, WL Gore and Archroma).
All producers write that they comply with the legal regulations and strive to reduce pollutants, only Archroma has never responded to multiple inquiries. The company 3M, which produces in Gendorf, has announced that it will phase out PFAS production by the end of 2025.
danger potential known for a long time
The main manufacturer of these chemicals had known that PFAS could be toxic since the 1960s. Back then, chemical giant DuPont discovered that PFAS enlarged the livers of rats and rabbits. A few years later, tests showed that the substances accumulated in the employees’ blood.
Various PFAS substances have long been suspected of causing cancer, infertility, and contributing to obesity and immunodeficiency in children. Nevertheless, there are still no rules in Germany that systematically limit the use and disposal of PFAS.
Even detectable in Tibet and Antarctica
PFAS can now be found almost everywhere in the environment. Last summer, a large-scale study showed that even rainwater often contains more PFAS than is permitted in the EU. The substances are so mobile that they can even be found in rainwater in Tibet or the Antarctic. Other measurements, such as groundwater tests around the Rhine, show much higher values than in rainwater. Researchers there even speak of a “chemical soup”.
A good two weeks ago, the responsible EU authority ECHA presented a proposal from five countries to ban the entire substance group of PFAS in the vast majority. To date, only two substances in the group have been banned, PFOS and PFOA. The total of more than 10,000 substances should no longer be allowed to be used – with a transitional period of a few years. A decision on the PFAS ban is likely to be made in 2025.
Forever Pollution Project
The Forever Pollution Project was financially supported by Journalismfund.eu and Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) and implemented with the help of Arena for Journalism in Europe and their Food & Water network. In addition to SZ, NDR and WDR the following media were involved: Le Monde (France), Knack (Belgium), Denik Referendum (Czech Republic), Politiken (Denmark), YLE (Finland), Reporters United (Greece), Radar and Le Scienze (Italy), Radio Latvia ( Latvia), The Investigative Desk and NRC (Netherlands), SRF (Switzerland), Datadista (Spain), Watershed Investigations and The Guardian (UK).