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Toxic chemicals found in Cambridgeshire drinking water supplies

Toxic chemicals have been discovered in an area that supplies Cambridgeshire drinking water.

Samples taken by Cambridge Water at its site at Duxford Airfield revealed that it contained concerning levels of PFAS compounds - chemicals linked with increased cholesterol, low birthweight and suppressed immune response.

Cambridge Water did not inform customers about the finding, but explained that “water supplies from this source have always been blended with other sources before reaching our customers”.

Cambridge Water insists the high levels of dangerous chemicals would not have reached customers' taps.
Cambridge Water insists the high levels of dangerous chemicals would not have reached customers' taps.

And the water company claims that tap water in the homes of affected customers, who live in Stapleford and Great Shelford, would have contained “at, or around, the tier 1 (lowest risk) level” of the chemical.

Cambridge Water said in a statement: “We confirm that we have not breeched any legal limit. New guidance was issued in January 2021 and we can assure customers that all drinking water in our supply region was, and remains to be, in line with expected safe levels.”

But South Cambridgeshire’s Conservative MP Anthony Browne said: “I’m appalled at the conduct of Cambridge Water in letting this incident happen and then concealing it. The continued secrecy around how many people have been affected, and the impact on our precious aquifer, is unacceptable.

“I urge Cambridge Water to come clean about the extent of the incident, both in terms of who was affected and how long it went on for. They must directly inform affected residents.

“Their actions go against both the spirit and letter of current legislation. Potentially thousands of residents have been drinking toxic chemicals and yet Cambridge Water’s statement seems to contain nothing close to an apology. Their customers deserve better.

Anthony Browne. Picture: Keith Heppell. (54753842)
Anthony Browne. Picture: Keith Heppell. (54753842)

“Affected residents should be compensated and Cambridge Water should face the consequences. I have already been in touch with ministers about it, and I’ll be writing to both Cambridge Water and water inspectors to ensure this incident is fully investigated and the strongest possible sanctions are applied.

“I will also be asking Cambridgeshire’s director of public health to investigate any impacts on health. Even if there is no impact, residents will need the reassurance.”

The compounds are a man-made substance that was used in firefighting foams from the late 1960s until the early 2000s at airfields and firefighting training centres. They are nicknamed “forever chemicals” as they do not break down in the environment.

They have non-stick and stain repellant properties and have been used in pans, packaging, waterproof clothes, carpets, mattresses and electronics. They were also used in industrial processes such as metal plating and semiconductor manufacturing.

Elinor Cordiner, head of drinking water quality and compliance at Cambridge Water, said: “The presence of PFAS compounds in the water supply is an emerging national challenge and one we take very seriously and support all action to effectively manage PFAS and protect public health.

“PFAS compounds are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used widely for a range purposes from industrial to household products, and continue to have widespread use in England and Wales.

“When the refreshed guidance on PFAS compounds was released in January 2021 by the Drinking Water Inspectorate, we undertook sampling surveys to establish whether there was any risk to our customers in Cambridge.

“All of our sites, with the exception of one, fell within the tier 1, lowest risk, category (tier levels are 1 to 4).

“Our site at Duxford Airfield fell within the tier 3 category, however water supplies from this source have always been blended with other sources before reaching our customers. This means that levels of PFAS at customer taps were at, or around, the tier 1 (lowest risk) level.

“As a purely precautionary measure we took the site out of supply and we are in the process of installing additional treatment at the site to safeguard our supplies for the future, and to ensure that our customers always receive the highest quality water.”

Cambridge’s Labour MP Daniel Zeichner described it as “totally unacceptable”, adding: “What is even more shocking is that the company chose not to inform those households that they had been exposed. This case illustrates how some private water companies are failing to fulfil their duty to provide clean and safe drinking water.”

Pippa Heylings, the Liberal Democrats prospective Parliamentary candidate for South Cambridgeshire, demanded “urgent action” and said: “It is frankly disgraceful that Cambridgeshire households had no knowledge there were high levels of toxic chemicals in their water supply.

“Let’s not forget that Conservative MPs failed to stop water companies polluting our chalk streams, rivers and groundwater. The Liberal Democrats will continue to demand more action is taken against water companies

“This government has a track record of breaking promises and failing to deliver.”

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