Almost everywhere we go in the 21st century, we are interacting with man-made chemicals. They are ubiquitous - concentrated in the ‘things’ that we buy, or existing in trace amounts in the environment around us. However, not all chemicals are created equal and PFAS are the perfect example.
What are PFAS?
PFAS stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also commonly referred to as “forever chemicals”. They earn this title by being highly persistent and bioaccumulative, meaning that they can persist in the environment for many years without breaking down, dissolve easily in water, accumulate in the bodies of humans and animals over time, and are considered toxic. PFAS are also man-made, meaning they don’t exist in nature without being manufactured and put there by humans. While the full extent of PFAS health impacts are still being explored, they have so far been tied to health conditions such as high cholesterol, liver damage, thyroid conditions, and different types of cancer.
The concentration of PFAS, unlike some other chemicals, are not limited to highly industrial practices either. PFAS can be found in everyday items like food packaging, carpets, different types of furniture (i.e. some of those that are stain-resistant, water-resistant, and fire-retardant), and even personal care items like makeup and dental floss. PFAS are also commonly used for non-stick and waterproof coatings (i.e. Teflon pans), electronics, degreasers, and industrial fire foams. Up to this point, PFAS have not been federally regulated in the US - a result of risk-based decision-making instead of precautionary chemical management.
What's different about PFAS?
With the high persistence and toxicity of PFAS, the costs and risks associated with them are considerably different than other mildly harmful substances. Avoiding all varieties of toxic chemicals is the ultimate goal, but with PFAS, the stakes are different. Holding the “forever chemical” nickname and its associated properties, it is even more imperative that we take seriously the efforts to keep them out of our water, lands, and bodies.
One big concern is the overall lack of proper toxicological data on PFAS, not unlike other chemicals. Research has been done to identify a slew of health impacts, but it is by no means complete or comprehensive. Already having so many red flags, the unknowns associated with PFAS are of high concern. In terms of human exposure to PFAS, drinking water is at the top of the list. They are also notoriously difficult to remove through municipal water treatment, making the reality of them being found more and more in drinking water and groundwater sources a growing problem, especially in areas around military bases, airports, and industrial activity.
In many places, PFAS have already exceeded acceptable EPA thresholds. According to CDC estimates, it is suggested that more than 95% of the US population has PFAS in their body. Because of their bioaccumulative nature, PFAS are often found at higher concentrations in human and apex predator populations. Additionally, higher PFAS exposure is likely to occur in low-income communities of color. All around, PFAS are uniquely harmful and have long-term repercussions that demand urgent attention and regulation.
PFAS in the news
Luckily, PFAS are no stranger to news coverage, reaching more and more audiences in the last several years. In 2022 especially, PFAS have taken center stage with the seemingly unanimous call for regulation of the substances. With this has come the surfacing of new findings coming from research and investigative journalism.
For instance, we have recently learned that the impacts of PFAS may be more harmful and widespread than previously thought. An example is the concerning levels of PFAS that have been found in Lake Superior and its species of Rainbow Smelt. While this sort of contamination sounds bad all on its own, the widespread impact across ecosystems also threatens the food sovereignty of tribal communities that have long depended on subsistence fishing. Treaty rights are also infringed upon as traditional and ancestral homelands become contaminated with toxic chemicals like PFAS.
It has been suggested that large chemical manufacturers have been aware of PFAS and their risks for decades, but have actively ignored or covered it up to continue production. Whether you work with or at one of these manufacturing companies, it is now the time to demand safer products, parts, and working conditions across our supply chains.
Despite growing concerns around PFAS, they have remained unregulated at the federal level in the United States. More recently, efforts to regulate and restrict these substances have been led by state governments. The good news is that things are beginning to change.
After nearly 80 years of consumer product use, President Biden recently unveiled a plan to regulate PFAS. The PFAS regulatory roadmap proposes that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be required to set national standards for the allowable thresholds of PFAS in drinking water, publish a list of PFAS as guidance for fish advisories, and regularly sample fish in lakes for contamination. According to the EPA, the Biden administration has also dedicated 1 billion dollars in grant funding through a bi-partisan infrastructure law to help communities that are most impacted by PFAS contamination. The EPA will continue moving forward with proposing a national drinking water regulation for PFAS in the Fall of 2022.
Beyond U.S. borders, restrictions targeting all PFAS are underway in the EU. PFAS have largely been restricted one substance at a time in the EU, often leading to more hazardous or underregulated chemical alternatives in products. However, a blanket restriction on PFAS could be the end all be all for these ‘forever chemicals’. Regardless, we can expect additional and far-reaching regulation on PFAS in the near future in the interest of public and environmental health.
Future-proofing against PFAS
The question now is - what do we do to prepare for PFAS regulation and get PFAS out of our products sooner? One way to get ahead is to be prepared in your supply chain management. There are upwards of 5,000 chemicals in the PFAS category - Toxnot has and maintains a comprehensive list of these chemicals so you don’t have to. Making sure you’re using a system like Toxnot to store your product bills of materials and screen your data against hazard lists will help you future-proof against not only PFAS changes, but compliance regulations more broadly.
In many cases, the dominant argument is that large polluters and industry stand in the way of making changes in PFAS regulation. If you do work at a large manufacturing company, this is one area where sourcing, compliance, and product design teams can make tangible impacts by switching to better alternatives. Much of the responsibility is in the hands of manufacturers to protect consumers and the environment. For this reason, don’t wait to remove PFAS until there is a regulation telling you that you must. Instead, get ahead of the problem that already is and will continue to affect human, animal, and ecosystem health.
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