March 22, 2023
PFAS chemicals, known to accumulate in animals and humans after prolonged exposure, have been a point of contention for decades throughout the world.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, are man-made chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products worldwide since around the 1950s.
These are ingredients in various everyday products. PFAS are used to keep food from sticking to packaging or cookware, make clothes and carpets resistant to stains, and create firefighting foam that is more effective.
PFAS molecules have a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms. Because the carbon-fluorine bond is one of the strongest, these chemicals do not degrade easily in the environment, says the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Due to the longer degradation, PFAS, aptly called “the Forever Chemicals,” have been found in public drinking water systems, soil, air, food, and more.
Both humans and animals become exposed due to PFAS-contaminated drinking water or food, using products made with PFAS, or breathing air containing the chemicals.
EU's Proposed Ban
Consumer brands in the EU worth more than €130 billion want PFAS chemicals banned.
A total of 108 companies dedicated to phasing out PFAS chemicals from products and processes have joined the PFAS Movement, an advocacy campaign initiated by environmental NGO ChemSec that calls for comprehensive regulation of PFAS.
The members comprise many well-known brands representing various industries like fashion, home goods, food, and personal care. The members are worth more than €130 billion in total revenue.
“A European ban on PFAS chemicals will have huge repercussions for all manufacturing industries and require much work for companies in the global supply chain. However, some parts of the industry oppose this ban, claiming that the change is too big to be justified. That’s why the support for a ban from such influential consumer brands as those in the PFAS Movement is so important. It’s a strong sign that businesses want to eliminate PFAS chemicals in products and processes,” said Anne-Sofie Bäckar, executive director at ChemSec.
One of the most well-known product categories for PFAS use are kitchen utensils, where PFAS non-stick pans are very common, even though there are alternatives.
“At The Cookware Company, we eliminated PFAS from our products in 2007. We believe it is wrong to enjoy the fruits of doing business while leaving the toxic side effects to the next generations. That's why we fully support the ban on PFAS, which are known to be toxic, persistent, and bio-accumulative, and they pose a significant risk to human health and the environment. By taking a leadership position against PFAS, we are sending a clear message to our customers, stakeholders, and the broader community that we are serious about our commitment to sustainability and health,” said Wim De Veirman, chief executive officer at The Cookware Company.
The proposed EU ban on PFAS is extensive and the first of its kind worldwide. The idea was initiated by Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, and Norway, which have spent almost three years mapping the implications of a ban on PFAS chemicals in a dossier nearly 2000 pages.
The proposal shows that the emissions of PFAS were 75,000 tonnes in 2020. If this continues, the emissions are expected to sit at 4.4 million tonnes in 30 years. The emissions originate from the production and use of the many products that contain PFAS, such as furniture, cosmetics, electronics, and more.
PFAS in the US
The US, sometimes known as following the European Union with trends, has a different idea of PFAS.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 9,000 PFAS have been identified. PFAS exposure can lead to serious health risks. Various studies shared by the National Library of Medicine have revealed altered metabolism, fertility, reduced fetal growth and increased risk of being overweight or obese, increased risk of some cancers, and reduced ability of the immune system to fight infections.
State and federal agencies have agreed that there should be, at the least, more research done to reduce exposure.
The US Environmental Protection Agency, along with the FDA, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and Centers for Disease Control are vested in reducing exposure. The research is constant and ongoing.
State legislatures are also working on their own by enacting bills that would get rid of products made with PFAS, drinking water with limited PFAS, the foam used for fire extinguishing, and other areas.
Under the 2021 Biden-Harris Administration’s plan to combat PFAS pollution, eight federal agencies announced steps, including the new EPA Roadmap, to take a comprehensive approach to addressing PFAS & advancing clean air, water, and food.
The EPA announced in March 2023, as part of the Administration’s plan, a proposal on the first national drinking water standard to limit six per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which is the agency’s latest move to combat the chemical pollution under its PFAS Strategic Roadmap.
The proposed National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) is for six PFAS including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (HFPO-DA, commonly known as GenX Chemicals), perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS), and perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS).
EPA anticipates finalizing the regulation by the end of 2023. The agency also expects that if fully implemented, the rule will prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses.
As well, over the next three years (2021-2024), part of the Administration’s plan called for FDA to proactively engage with and continue to support states when suspected areas of PFAS contamination may impact food and expand its PFAS analysis method development. This will include announcing additional testing results from the general food supply and targeted testing of seafood.
The National Conference of State Legislatures reported that some states have proposed or adopted limits for PFAS in drinking water. They are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
States have also passed legislation to require monitoring for PFAS in public drinking water systems.
There are currently 12 states addressing PFAS in firefighting foam, with enacted bills. States include Arkansas, Connecticut, California, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Washington, and Wisconsin.
For PFAS in food packaging and consumer products, only six states have enacted bills to ban or limit the chemicals. They are Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington.
By July 2023, California will also ban sale and distribution of new children’s products containing PFAS, requiring the use of the “least toxic alternative.”
Hawaii will also prohibit the manufacture, distribution, and sale of certain food packaging — wraps, liners, plates, food boats, and pizza boxes — that contain PFAS. The state is also banning use of PFAS in class B firefighting foams, which are used to extinguish gasoline, oil, and jet fuel.
Vermont will ban intentionally added PFAS from food packaging, residential rugs and carpets, and ski wax.
It will be interesting to see if the state-enacted bills, as well as the Biden-Harris Adminstration PFAS plan, will move the needle on the banning of PFAS, at least in some aspects.
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