The public discourse surrounding PFAS, a.k.a. "forever chemicals," continues to gain momentum. Notably, one of the world's biggest brands, 3M, has already committed to stop making PFAS by 2025. Soon, a potential ban on the production, import, and sale of PFAS in Europe could have far-reaching impacts on health and business worldwide.
In this Q&A, Alison Fraser, a chemical engineer on Actalent's Laboratory Services compliance team, provides thoughtful answers to the most common and pressing questions about PFAS.
Here's a few of the topics she'll cover:
- The science, history, and uses of PFAS, a.k.a "forever chemicals"
- Examples of products that may use PFAS
- The effects of forever chemicals on human health and their prevalence in our environment
- The growing public concern, the ongoing risks companies face, and the EU's potential ban on PFAS
- How an EU ban would impact businesses that use, or rely on companies that use, PFAS
- How businesses can not only avoid the harmful implications of PFAS and the potential EU ban, but also improve their products and operations
What are PFAS chemicals, also commonly referred to as "forever chemicals"?
PFAS stands for "Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances." These chemicals are carbon chains with fluorine atoms. The carbon-fluorine bond is incredibly strong. That means these chemicals persist and accumulate in the environment, some potentially for hundreds of years. In fact, they last longer than any other synthetic chemical that exists. In cases where larger PFAS do break down, they break down into smaller PFAS that then also persist and accumulate.
Where are PFAS found?
Because PFAS are water soluble, they're extremely mobile in the environment and have been found all over the world. They exist in innumerable products and from there accumulate in drinking water, air, soils, and foods. Thus, PFAS accumulate in people, plants, and animals, too.
Where do PFAS come from?
PFAS don't occur naturally. The first PFAS were manufactured in the late 1940s. More and more (like Teflon) were created in the years that followed. Today, more than 10,000 different kinds exist. There are different groups of PFAS with different purposes. Most all are used in consumer and industrial products.
What are PFAS used for?
They're what make products waterproof, water-repellent, heat-resistant, stain-resistant, non-stick, and/or longer-lasting.
What are examples of products that use PFAS?
Consumer goods that use PFAS may include long-wear cosmetics, non-stick pans, stain-resistant textiles for children, food packaging, ski wax, and water-proof sprays for shoes, clothes, and carpets.
Industrial products may include firefighting foam, military and aerospace applications, artificial turf, chrome plating, and construction. They can also be found in some medical devices, such as pacemakers and defibrillators.
Are PFAS harmful to humans?
Research into the effects of PFAS on human health is ongoing. Available U.S. data, however, indicates that elevated levels of PFAS can reduce the body's ability to identify and fight off antigens that cause sickness and disease. According to EU hazard classifications, PFAS are known to be toxic for reproduction and can cause damage to unborn children. High PFAS counts have also been associated with a higher risk of certain cancers, lower infant birth weights, increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, decreased vaccine responses in children, higher cholesterol levels, hormonal interferences, and changes in liver ensymes.
Can we get rid of the PFAS accumulating in the environment?
For now, the answer is no. However, there's a growing push, particularly among regulators and lawmakers in the EU, to prevent the accumulation of PFAS from getting any bigger.
What are regulators and lawmakers in the EU doing about PFAS?
The European Chemical Agency (ECHA) intends to propose a ban on PFAS. If enacted, the ban would prohibit the manufacture, import, and sale of approximately 10,000 PFAS in the European Economic Area. This includes banning any products that contain PFAS. The ECHA estimates this measure would prevent 4.4 million tonnes (4.85 million U.S. tons) of PFAS from getting into the environment over the next 30 years.
Is the U.S. taking any action regarding PFAS?
Legislation targeting PFAS in 2019 and 2021 died in the senate. Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing regulations that would limit the allowance of six PFAS in drinking water. That leaves approximately 9,994 PFAS that would not be subject to the proposed limitations. It's estimated that 200 million Americans have PFAS in their drinking water. Interestingly, the proposed PFAS limitations would be lower than the current allowance for hexavalent chromium, which is the carcinogenic water contaminant made famous by the movie (and true story) "Erin Brockovich".
If the EU ban on PFAS becomes law, how long would companies have to comply?
The European Parliament is expected to make a final ruling on the proposed PFAS ban in Q4 of 2023. If ratified as currently written, companies making or selling products in the EU would have between 1.5 and 12 years to phase-out the production and use of any banned chemicals. The length of time allowed would depend on the impacted product's purpose and the availability of a non-PFAS substitute (if one exists). Theoretically, products that are important to public health and safety (like a medical device), but without a readily available PFAS substitute chemical, would get the most time to comply. Conversely, less vital products that have readily available PFAS substitutes would get the least time. But keep in mind, if the ECHA gives a company 12 years to find a replacement, it's because all 12 years will be needed (so start now, especially if the PFAS has no known replacement).
What would this ban mean for companies that make or sell products using PFAS in the EU?
If enacted, the ban means companies will lose access to EU markets unless they redesign their products. Furthermore, even if a company doesn't sell products in the EU, it could still lose its European suppliers of PFAS -- and potentially global suppliers as well, if other countries adopt similar EU-style regulations. In addition to market and supplier access risks, there's tremendous liability and reputational exposures that continue to emerge.
If future PFAS bans are likely, when should companies start the compliance process?
Proactive compliance is often exponentially less expensive and more effective than reactive compliance.
Compliance cost savings aside, companies could also view this as an opportunity to differentiate themselves on an issue that has become uniquely personal to many consumers.
What industries would be most affected by PFAS bans?
Given how many different applications PFAS have, almost every industry is affected (a list of impacted industries with analysis starts on page 80). The cautious approach is to assume your industry is affected, and then verify if -- and how -- your company is affected. For example, the cookware industry is affected because of the use of PFAS-based coatings on non-stick pans. If your company is a luxury brand that only makes copper pots and cast-iron pans, you're likely not affected by the PFAS ban. However, if you're a mass-market brand with a wide range of products, you'll have to verify every single product and will most likely find at least some with PFAS.
Are there ancillary benefits for companies to get rid of PFAS?
Replacing hazardous chemicals is a fantastic opportunity for companies to make other improvements at the same time. Think of it like renovating a house: renovations are a pain, but if you're forced to renovate it's a great opportunity to make other improvements. And, in this case, you'll end up with a way better house. Something else to consider: just because a chemical is currently being used and has been for a long time, doesn't mean it's the best option. Companies may find that replacement chemicals for PFAS are less expensive and better performing, in addition to being safer for workers and consumers. Rather than being thought of as an intractable problem, replacing PFAS with safer substitutes could present opportunities to strengthen an operation.
How can Actalent help companies with PFAS?
Actalent has a proven track record of successfully developing and implementing REACH substitution programs for our clients. We've worked on technically challenging substitutions, including the use of hexavalent chromium in aerospace. Our interdisciplinary teams can take on project coordination and prioritisation, data acquisition and management, implementation of software tools, training programs, identification of substitute chemicals and/or processes, proposing testing and validation plans, and more.