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'Forever chemicals' a wake-up call to take rainwater pollution in hand, expert says

Studies show that rainwater in most locations on Earth contains dangerous levels of these chemicals which do not easily decompose.

Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli
2 minute read
A woman holds an umbrella over her head to protect herself from the rain as she crosses a street in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur.
A woman holds an umbrella over her head to protect herself from the rain as she crosses a street in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur.

The rainwater pollution reportedly happening throughout the world should serve as a wake-up call for Malaysia in its readiness to tackle yet another environmental problem of global proportions, an expert says. 

According to studies done by Stockholm University and ETH Zurich University, rainwater in much of the world contains what is known as "forever chemicals" – a term that refers to synthetic matter called PFAS or poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances. 

The studies show that rainwater in most locations on Earth contains levels of these chemicals that exceed safety levels. 

The US guidelines on PFAS levels in drinking water, surface water and soil, for instance, were lowered following recent findings on toxicity levels and threats to human health as well as the environment. 

In tropical Malaysia, concerns are linked to its high rainfall. 

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, water quality and modelling expert Zaki Zainudin said there were no specific studies so far on the content of PFAS in rainwater in the country. 

"Analysis of PFAS levels requires very precise equipment, usually at the part-per-trillion or nanogram level," he said, adding that analyses of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) in Malaysia's river water had only recently been done.

Nevertheless, he said, the country should have specific policies and control measures in place on the use of PFAS, PFOA and PFOS, including the import and use of these materials. 

Zaki, who is a member of the International Water Association, said water quality standards for PFOA and PFOS should also be established to ensure the safety of the water supplied to consumers. 

"Labs in Malaysia should be empowered so that they can analyse PFAS accurately and comprehensively," he added. 

The studies also show that PFAS have spread throughout the world through water, air, soil and the atmosphere. 

Traces have even been detected in the rainwater in places uninhabited by humans such as Antarctica and the Tibetan Plateau.

PFAS get the nickname "forever chemicals" from the fact that they do not easily decompose. 

According to Zaki, the use of these chemicals began spreading about 70 years ago, when they became widely utilised in daily products such as non-stick pans and food containers made of hydrophobic materials containing PFAS.

He cited a study in the US showing that the substances had been found in more than 95% of blood plasma samples taken in the country. 

PFAS can also accumulate in the body, he added. He said tests done on animals had found links between the chemical content and the formation of tumours, as well as a harmful effect on the immune system.  

In the US, he said, preventive measures had already been put in place including a prohibition on the use of ingredients containing these chemicals in products. 

"This approach appears to have shown results," he said, citing a reduction in PFOA and PFOS content in the public environment. 

"In Singapore, too, the authorities have banned the import of these substances." 

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