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Toxic chemicals found in drinking water near RMG factories: Study

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A five-year study has found sky-high levels of toxic PFAS chemicals in surface and tap water samples collected near the centres of the textiles industry that produce clothing for global fashion brands.

The worrying discovery has raised concern among experts as the chemical has serious health and environment effects. The first of its kind research in Bangladesh has been conducted by the Environment and Social Development Organisation (ESDO) and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN). The study was conducted during the 2019-2023 period.

The study titled "Persistent Threat: PFAS in textiles and water in Bangladesh" was published on Wednesday.

Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of chemicals used in the number of products, including in clothes to make it water and oil protected.

The textiles industry, responsible for roughly 49 per cent of global PFAS usage, is the second-highest emitter of PFAS.

"Bangladesh is an international textiles manufacturing hub, and the prevalence of toxic chemical emissions from this sector puts our residents at higher risk," said Siddika Sultana, executive director of the ESDO.

As a party to the Stockholm Convention, Bangladesh should implement PFAS regulations and health-protective standards, experts have suggested.

Furthermore, certain PFAS have been linked to weakened immunity, liver damage and cancer.

Some PFAS have been banned globally under the Stockholm Convention and others are under review for a global ban.

PFAS were detected in 27 of 31 surface water samples. The samples were analysed by independent labs in the US.

The highest PFAS levels were detected in 2019 in water from the Karnatali River, with levels more than 300 times the proposed EU limit.

That sample also had the highest level of two banned PFAS, more than 1,700 times above a current Dutch advisory limit for PFOA (0.3 ng/L) and more than 54,000 times above a current Dutch advisory limit for PFOS (0.007 ng/L), according to the study.

Another sample, from Hatirjheel Lake in 2022, also contained both PFOA and PFOS, the latter testing at 185 times above a current Dutch advisory level.

Samples were also taken in 2022 downstream and upstream from Export Processing Zones (the Dhaka and Adamjee EPZs). Samples taken downstream from the facilities showed higher PFAS concentrations.

Three of the four tap water samples from 2019 contained PFAS and tested above the US PFOA threshold for drinking water (4 ng/L).

The study also analysed clothing purchased in Bangladesh, as another potential source of PFAS exposure to residents. PFAS were detected in all five clothing items sampled, with one men's jacket containing the globally banned chemical PFOA.

"PFAS in our waterways, tap water, and clothing pose serious health and environmental threats, yet industry and policymakers have been slow to respond," said Shahriar Hossain, senior policy and technical advisor of the ESDO and lead author of the study.

Regulating thousands of PFAS chemicals one-by-one would take decades and leave our children at risk, he warned. Chemicals found in some samples from 2022 that were not found in 2019 suggest that manufacturers may be shifting away from banned or regulated PFAS chemicals to unregulated polymeric chemicals.

"Safe alternatives to PFAS in textiles already exist," said Jitka Straková, IPEN global researcher and co-author of the study.

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