What Canada is doing about the toxic forever chemicals in drinking water


As the United States sets its first national limits on toxic forever chemicals in drinking water, researchers say Canada is lagging when it comes to regulations.


Still, they acknowledged that Canada is making progress in trying to reduce and prevent the contamination of water in the country.


From carpeting to non-stick cookware, so-called forever chemicals, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), have been widely found in consumer products since the 1950s.


These chemicals are designed to be so strong that they don’t break down fully in the environment. They’re used to make products non-stick, oil- and water-repellent and resistant to temperature change.


Growing evidence shows PFAS are in Canadian freshwater sources and drinking water, according to Health Canada. Studies have linked PFAS to serious health problems, such as cancer, low birth weight and liver disease.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized its drinking water regulation for six PFAS last week. Under the new regulation, utilities are required to limit certain forever chemicals, including two common types —perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) — to four parts per trillion, or four nanograms per litre. As well, water providers must test for these PFAS and alert the public when levels are too high.


Similarly, Health Canada proposed new limits for PFAS in drinking water in February 2023. There are currently drinking water quality guidelines for PFOA and PFOS in Canada.


Under the current guidelines, the limit is 200 ng/L for PFOA, which is 50 times more than the U.S. limit of 4 ng/L. At 600 ng/L for PFOS, the maximum allowable amount in Canada for this type of forever chemical is 150 times more than the U.S limit.


In light of the changes south of the border, CTVNews.ca asked Health Canada whether there were any plans to change the limits, or to follow the American lead on the issue.


In a recent email to CTVNews.ca, Health Canada spokesperson Mark Johnson said the department has proposed a drinking water objective with a much lower limit of 30 ng/L for all PFAS detected in drinking water.


Canada’s strategy


Despite Canada’s proposed drinking water limit for PFAS being about eight times higher than the ones for the United States, many factors are probably at play, according to an expert.


Satinder Kaur Brar, a civil engineering professor and James and Joanne Love Chair in Environmental Engineering at York University in Toronto, has been doing work for the past few decades on various contaminants including PFAS in waters and wastewaters.


“Definitely U.S. EPA has taken a leap forward in this direction,” she said in a video interview with CTVNews.ca, noting no international standards exist. “So I would say that if we have set up higher limits here for the Canadian citizens, definitely we are exposing them more, or making them more vulnerable to these chemicals.”


Canada’s recently proposed limits only deal with drinking water, not other contaminated sources such as food, soils, sediments and air, Brar pointed out. She points to political leaders as being among those to blame for what some may perceive as holes in the proposed policy changes.


“I would say that the political will is also lacking because political will also plays an important role in bringing out these regulations,” she said. “We have left out many important environmental compartments, which are all interlinked and contributing to the overall … presence of PFAS in water.”


‘Stringent enough’?


And when it comes to laws and regulations, a senior environmental law researcher and paralegal says Canada has made strides in tackling the problem, but it’s lagging behind some countries such as the U.S.


“So while the U.S. EPA numbers are set much lower than Canada’s, what we see in Canada is at least a progression from the current guidelines, and that’s not a bad thing,” Fe de Leon, with the Canadian Environmental Law Association in Toronto, said in a video interview with CTVNews.ca.


“The question is whether it’s stringent enough to deal with the scope of impacts that these chemicals have on the environment and particularly human health.”


Health Canada’s Johnson said the final drinking water objective for PFAS will be published later this year, replacing current guidelines. Provinces and territories use these guidelines and objectives to create drinking water quality requirements for all Canadians, he said.


Provincial and territorial authorities have been monitoring treated drinking water in some regions, and the federal government has been monitoring PFAS in freshwater since 2013, Johnson added.


“Current data regarding PFAS in Canadian freshwater sources and drinking water suggest that PFAS are present at levels below the new proposed objective,” Johnson said in an emailed statement. “However, the concentrations of PFAS in freshwater and drinking water may be higher near facilities that use large amounts of these chemicals, locations where firefighting foams containing PFAS were used to put out a fire, and landfills and wastewater treatment plants.”


‘The biggest issue’


A major problem is a lack of information on the forever chemicals affecting Canadians, many of whom may be unaware of what these chemicals are, where they’re found and the impact they can have on our health and the world around us.


“The biggest issue right now is complete disclosure of how many of these chemicals are actually found in the Canadian market and are being released into the environment,” Brar said. “We don’t have a good handle on that.”


Over the last few years, she said, more sites across Canada have been “impacted substantially” by PFAS. “So this is absolutely necessary that the government moves ahead and takes action on these chemicals, and create their own strategy.”


A chemical engineering professor who leads a team that conducts research on the impacts of these chemicals says he believes that both Canada and the U.S. have made their boldest moves so far to address the problem.


“The net effect is that both the U.S. and Canada are trying to limit … these chemicals in drinking water to levels that are extremely low and barely measurable,” said Franco Berruti, director at the Institute for Chemicals and Fuels from Alternative Resources at Western University in London, Ont., in a video interview with CTVNews.ca. “At the end of the day …they will have the similar effect.”


Barriers to a solution


Berruti said there isn’t a simple solution to the problem of controlling the impact of forever chemicals. One of the barriers to regulating them is the many unknowns about PFAS.


“It’s not just a question of two or three chemicals that are considered toxic that one would regulate. But we are talking about thousands and thousands of these chemicals. We don’t even know how to analyze these chemicals,” he said.


The technologies that exist to reduce or eliminate PFAS “are very limited,” Berruti added.


Scientists are still studying different aspects of the problem, including investigating which forever chemicals are more problematic and measurable.


Out of more than 12,000 types of PFAS, Berruti estimates that only 40 may be measurable.


“To set the limits without having the ways of measuring those … extremely low concentrations doesn’t mean anything until the methodologies are there to demonstrate that those limits are reached,” he said.


While Canada doesn’t produce PFAS, Berruti said, the country should closely monitor the imports of products that are contaminated with the chemicals.


Industry concerns


Health advocates praised the U.S. move to create its first drinking water limits on PFAS, but the news wasn’t universally celebrated.


Among the concerns raised were those from water utilities, which said customers will end up paying more for water since treatment systems are expensive to install.


Actions taken in Canada have also been met with challenges and criticism.


In May 2023, Health Canada issued a draft recommendation to label PFAS, an entire class of chemicals, as toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.


Cassie Barker, the toxics program manager at Environmental Defence, said in March that it was important to label the entire class, not only each individual substance, as toxic, The Canadian Press reported. When Canada designated and banned some types of PFAS in 2012, Barker said, it became a “whack-a-mole” situation, because other products used to replace them also posed health risks.


In response to the proposed PFAS toxic designation, the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada wrote to Environment and Climate Change Canada in June 2023 asking that PFAS not be labelled toxic as an entire class of substances, and instead be designated on a case-by-case basis, based on proven risk.


PFAS currently used by Canadian industry “have not been shown to be of high risk” and sweeping prohibitions could cause economic hardship to the industry, it wrote in its letter.


In the States, growing awareness has led to lawsuits against manufacturers.


For example, 3M settled a series of lawsuits last June that could exceed US$12.5 billion, involving more than 300 U.S. municipalities where the chemicals were found in drinking water. The company said it plans to stop making PFAS by 2025.


In the same month, DuPont de Nemours Inc. and spinoffs Chemours Co. and Corteva Inc. reached a US$1.18-billion deal over similar complaints by about 300 drinking water providers.


And legal action has occurred in Canada as well.


According to the business law firm Osler, a class action was certified in 2021 against the National Research Council of Canada over PFAS in the surface water and groundwater at the NRC’s facility in Mississippi Mills, Ont.


With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press

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