A PhD thesis conducted by Godwin Sammut on the presence of Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in the local environment has revealed their presence in several environmental matrices in the Maltese islands, including drinking water, fruit and vegetables.

Scientists call PFASs ‘forever chemicals’. They include potentially thousands of synthetic chemicals that are extremely persistent in the environment and in our bodies.

PFAS chemicals have been highly used in various industries because of their ability to repel oil and water. They have been manufactured since the 1940s and can be found in Teflon non-stick products, stains, water-repellents, paints, cleaning products, food packaging, and firefighting foams.

A growing number of research studies have found that there are various potential health risks associated with PFAS exposure, including liver damage, thyroid disease, lower fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression and cancer.

Sammut’s study focused on several environmental matrices, including rainwater, valley water, seawater, groundwater, tap water, bottled water, wastewater, valley sediments and soils, as well as local fruit and vegetables, all investigated for the first time.

The results showed that PFAS contamination was found in 100 per cent of rainwater and valley water samples.

All sediment, soil and groundwater samples were contaminated with at least one PFAS. However, the concentrations of PFASs in groundwater on the Maltese islands were below the parameters set by the Directive 98/83/EC.

The use in Malta of products containing PFAS was still high

All seawater samples except one were contaminated with at least one PFAS. The most contaminated seawater samples were from enclosed areas with high levels of human activity.

Wastewater samples from treatment plants were also found to be contaminated with at least one PFAS, indicating that the use in Malta of products containing PFAS was still high.

Low levels of the PFASs tested for were detected in all fruit and vegetables, and also in drinking water (tap water and bottled water). It was observed that no PFASs were detected in quantifiable amounts in drinking water that is sourced from seawater through reverse osmosis, demonstrating that exposure to PFASs through drinking water is Malta is dependent on source.

The findings of this research project have shown that PFASs are widely distributed in the Maltese environment despite being ‘remote’ with no land connection to any other mainland. Contamination of the Maltese environment by PFASs is influenced by atmospheric transport as well as by the disposal of imported materials contaminated by PFASs.

The findings of this research project have also been the subject of two published papers in a renowned international journal with more papers planned in the near future.

Sammut’s thesis formed part of a Doctor of Philosophy in Chemistry that he was awarded by the University of Malta in November 2019. The PhD was supervised by Prof. Emmanuel Sinagra from the University’s Department of Chemistry and Emeritus Professor W.P. Pim de Voogt from the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics at the University of Amsterdam.

The PhD degree was partly funded by a 2014 award under the Malta Government Scholarship Scheme.

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