Having covered the issue of PFOS contamination in Jersey for more than a year, Express reporter Julien Morel accepted an offer to have his own blood tested for the ‘forever chemical’ that is linked to cancer, kidney disease and a host of other health conditions.
This is his story...
This week, residents welcomed the news that the Government had agreed to organise blood tests for islanders who fear they may have been poisoned by a now-banned chemical they’ve ingested.
Yesterday, Deputy Chief Minister Lyndon Farnham told the States Assembly that the Government had a "moral responsibility" to help.
The Government-funded programme is limited to those who lived in known affected areas – specifically in St. Ouen’s Bay and the Pont Marquet area of St. Brelade – for more than one year, or worked in the area for more than two years, between 1991 and 1996.
Before this week’s decision to dispatch samples to an independent lab in California for testing, one island resident who has campaigned for official recognition of the problem for almost a decade sent her own blood and those of her friends and family to a lab in Germany to test for PFOS.
Sarah Simon has organised the ‘unofficial’ testing of more than 30 people and, in the Michael Mosley-style of self-test journalism, I had a vial of my blood taken by a nurse at my GP’s surgery, which was then sent by Sarah to Germany.
The results, returned a number of weeks later, were both fascinating and potentially worrying: I have 13.5 parts per billion of PFOS in my blood.
Pictured: St Ouen's Bay resident Sarah Simon has been campaigning for blood testing of islanders for seven years.
The recommended safe limit in Germany, which has a far more advanced standard-setting regime than the UK or Jersey, is five parts per billion, meaning that I am almost three times over the safe limit.
By comparison, islanders who also provided blood to Sarah to be tested ranged from 2.8 ppb to an incredible 259.4 ppb, which is more than 50 times over the safe limit.
However, the median average of the 28 people sampled by Sarah was 10.4 ppb, putting me ‘safely’ in the top half.
For the record, I have never lived in St. Ouen’s Bay or Pont Marquet but I was fortunate to spend a good deal of my youth down in the bay, where I also went to nursery school. I also worked at the Airport full time for a year in 1996/97 and, before that, spent several seasons working there at the weekends, from around 1988.
Unlike many of the people Sarah has tested, I have no known health conditions, which is hopefully partly attributable to a healthy lifestyle with a good amount of exercise.
However, Sarah firmly believes that PFOS is responsible for many ailments that she and her family and neighbours have suffered, including thyroid, autoimmune and kidney disease, pancreatic cancer, and bladder problems.
Pictured: PFAS was added to a variety of commonly used products to make them resistant to heat, oil and water.
She also believes that PFOS has been responsible for the premature death of islanders living close to the Airport.
Sarah is not surprised that I have unsafe levels of PFOS in my blood, not only because it is present in water supplies islandwide but also because, as the world carries out more research into PFOS and its sibling chemicals, scientists are realising that it is far more present and pernicious than first thought.
There is also the issue that PFOS – which is one of more than 4,000 chemicals in the manmade PFAS family – is ‘bio-accumulate’, meaning that it builds up in the body over time.
This is because the carbon chains in the PFAS group are so tightly knit that they don’t break down very easily, hence they are coined ‘forever chemicals’.
This property makes them highly resistant to heat, water and oil, which made them a useful ingredient in frying pans, safety tiles and firefighting foam – until its negative impacts became known, a story told in the film Dark Waters.
Once in the body, whether that be livestock or humans, they accumulate and are very hard to get rid of.
Sarah has tested her own blood. In 2019, she had 8.81 ppb of PFOS in her blood. As an experiment, she decided to swap bottled water for mains and, eight months later, her PFOS level had increased to 10.5 ppb.
Whether this citizen-science would hold up to proper academic scrutiny is beyond the knowledge of this correspondent, but Sarah’s conviction, tenacity and dedication is undeniably impressive.
Pictured: Contamination of boreholes in St. Ouen's Bay is preventing full extraction by Jersey Water. What is does take is blended with other sources.
As mentioned, the impact of PFAS is an emerging science, which is recognised by everyone, including this Government, who have been praised by residents for taking the first step of organising blood testing by a world-renowned lab.
Previously, the Government appeared to adopt a head-in-the sand approach, recycling a standard response: “Worldwide, there has been considerable research into the relationship between PFAS exposure and health effects.
“The national public health authorities in Australia, Canada and the United States have all concluded that there is no evidence confirming adverse effects on human health caused by exposure to PFAS and that no specific health screening is appropriate or warranted.”
Even a cursory glance at reputable research on the internet casts doubt on this assertion.
A change of the guard, with the appointment of Professor Peter Bradley to the new role of Director of Public Health, has led to a fresh approach and the Government now want to build up a bank of data to assess the problem.
They have also said they will be flexible in its approach to the criteria and I’ve been encouraged to apply to join the blood-testing programme, which I will.
The Government concedes it doesn’t have any clear solutions but it wants to be prepared for when new science and fresh studies emerge.
It also means there is no clear answer to my obvious question: “I have 13.5 ppb of PFOS in my blood – should I be worried?”
But at least the Government appears willing to gather the information to one day tackle it.
In parallel to the issue of health and blood, there is another significant problem: our water supply.
PFAS, including PFOS, is in mains water, as well some boreholes, but Jersey Water emphatically state that the quality of drinking water surpasses the highest international standards.
One of the reasons it’s there is that Jersey Water continue to draw water from boreholes in known contaminated areas. However, it blends it with other sources to dilute its impact.
Last year, the maximum amount of PFAS found at Augrès was 0.050 ppb / ltr and at Handois, it was 0.078 ppb. The mean average over 2021 was 0.034 and 0.049 respectively. The current safe limit, which Jersey Water takes from the UK, is 0.1 ppb, meaning that drinking water has never come close to breaking the rules.
Campaigners, however, argue that the UK safety limit is way too high, and other countries have already lowered their safe limits substantially.
The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency, for example, currently sets a 70 parts per trillion (0.7 ppb) safe level for drinking water but is considering reducing this to 1 ppt (0.001 ppb).
The European Food Safety Agency is moving towards a safe limit of 5 ppt (0.005 ppb).
In fairness to the Government and Jersey Water, they are both part of an official ‘Officer Technical Group’ tackling the issue of PFAS in our water, in parallel to the blood-testing programme.
It has produced two ‘interim’ reports which has made a number of recommendations, including more testing, updating Jersey’s 1972 Water Law, and carrying out hydro-geological surveys of St Ouen’s Bay and Pont Marquet.
The latter was expected to happen last summer but has not yet been completed.
Jersey Water is especially keen for these areas to be cleaned up so it can return to full extraction, which is necessary to meet the island’s growing demand for water.
So, at the moment, eligible islanders have two Government-sponsored PFAS-related programmes to sign up to: one to test their water and one to test their blood.
Those on a borehole who want to get their water tested for PFAS should ring the Environment Department on 441600, while those who meet the criteria for a blood test should contact their GP in the first instance.
This journalist, with 13.5 ppb of PFOS in his blood, will be following developments closely.
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‘Why hasn’t our public services environmental regulation department long since picked this up? ‘
Since 1999 there has been a Statutory Nuisances law in Jersey which, had it been efficiently applied, would certainly have resulted in this massive pollution being remediated and the cost would have been substantial. Had the Island like most other jurisdictions had an independent environmental regulator rather than an in-house one, successive governments would not have been able to downplay the immense consequences of no action being taken.