Running water | Threshold limits for “eternal pollutants”

The US federal government announced on Wednesday its intention to establish threshold limits in running water for “eternal pollutants”, a first in the country. “In Quebec, we’re not doing too much worse,” notes an expert.

A presence in many rivers

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of synthetic molecules used since the 1940s, and having been developed for their heat resistance or even their impermeability. Present in many waterways in Europe and North America, including in Quebec and Canada, PFAS find their way into the drinking water that supplies homes. Their impact on health is considered “worrying” by the scientific community, and they have been linked, in large quantities, to a reduction in fetal growth and kidney cancer, in particular.


PFAS are used in particular in waterproof textiles, non-stick pans (Teflon), detergents, cosmetics, and many other objects. Michael Regan, administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said Wednesday that there is no doubt that these chemical compounds have been important to certain industries. “But there is also no doubt that many of them can be harmful to our health and the environment. » The EPA estimates that the new standards will reduce the exposure of 100 million American citizens, or nearly a third of the country’s inhabitants of 333 million.

In Quebec

A study published in 2022 by researchers at the University of Montreal showed that PFAS were indeed present in drinking water in Quebec, but at levels that do not generally alarm experts. “In Quebec, we are not doing too much worse,” explains Sébastien Sauvé, professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Montreal, in an interview. If we were to apply the new American standard to Canada, not a third of Canadians would be affected. In Quebec, there would be a few municipalities that would have to treat their water, but no more. »

A dozen cities to watch

Of nearly 400 cities studied in Quebec, Mr. Sauvé notes that around ten should tackle the presence of PFAS. The researcher names Val-d’Or, Saint-Donat-de-Montcalm, L’Épiphanie and Sainte-Cécile-de-Milton as places where the readings would exceed American standards. “Montreal does not exceed standards. Longueuil is close, but is below according to our readings. » Some homemade filters can remove PFAS in whole or in part.

New requirements

In February 2023, Health Canada issued a recommendation regarding the requirements for the maximum acceptable concentration in drinking water. “We are still waiting for the final version from Health Canada,” said Mr. Sauvé. New US requirements require drinking water suppliers to monitor, report results, correct and implement corrective measures. Health Canada does not go that far, because part of this is under provincial jurisdiction. We’ll need the equivalent here. »

Three years

American public systems providing drinking water will first have three years to test their water and inform the population of the pollution levels observed. They will then have two additional years to act, for example by installing specialized filters. Europe also has standards in this area, but they are generally less restrictive. “The standard varies depending on the country,” says Sébastien Sauvé. It is often millions, billions that must be invested to remove or reduce PFAS. There is a cost-benefit analysis on deaths and quality of life lost. »

With Agence France-Presse

Consult an information page on PFAS from the National Institute of Public Health of Quebec

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