What are PFAS?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of chemicals and can be found in all sorts of products, in the environment and in our bodies.
PFAS are man-made substances created by replacing hydrogen atoms (the natural bonding partner for carbon) with fluorine atoms. This gives PFAS water and oil repellent properties. These properties are sought after in many industrial production processes but come at a cost: the fluorinated parts of emitted PFAS are not degradable. This means that once released into the environment, these PFAS cannot be broken down into carbon dioxide or methane by bacteria, enzymes, or sunlight, earning them the name of ‘forever chemicals’.
Why PFAS are so difficult to regulate
Thousands of PFAS have been described. Hundreds of PFAS are produced industrially. Around 100,000 sites in Europe are estimated to emit PFAS into the environment. Adding complexity to the issue of PFAS contamination, not all PFAS are equal. The non-fluorinated parts of emitted PFAS do in fact degrade. The PFAS found in the environment are therefore not necessarily identical to the ones that companies produce; from the moment they are emitted to the moment they are found in the environment, these PFAS may undergo changes that effectively make them ‘new PFAS’, distinct from their original form. This makes it more challenging for regulators to properly regulate them.
‘Default’ hydrocarbon and partially fluorinated counterpart: octan-1-ol (left) and 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol (middle), which degrades into PFHxA (right) and into other persistent substances.
While some PFAS bioaccumulate, building up in ecosystems - including in humans - other PFAS are very mobile and easily travel to any part of the globe. They have the ability to dissolve in water (but not disappear). Yet others can be volatile and become airborne. Therefore, they easily transit to other parts of the ecosystem through water and air.
Many PFAS are toxic with harmful effects on humans and nature. In the case of humans these effects can take the form of cancer, a weakened immune system and high cholesterol, among others.
Unnoticed pollution problems
Key legislative developments
C8 and ‘longer PFAS’ (‘8’ and ‘longer’ refer to the number of consecutive fluorinated carbon atoms) were largely phased out years ago. C6 PFAS are currently the focus of a REACH restriction. Another REACH restriction, covering all remaining PFAS (including C4, fluoropolymers, fluorinated polyethers and F-gases), is being prepared by five EU Member states. This is encouraging but not enough.
Around the world, key developments on PFAS include the following:
- In 2019 Denmark banned all PFAS in paper for food contact, such as disposable salad bowls or fast-food wrappers.
- The US FDA brokered a voluntary phase-out by 2024 of C6-based treatments (i.e. almost all treatments currently authorised e.g. in Germany) of food contact paper and board, following all-PFAS bans by single federal states such as Washington, Maine and New York.
- Several US states will ban all fluorinated fire-fighting foams as of 2022, with ad-hoc derogations expiring as soon as 2023, and as late as 2032. For large fuel storage tanks, the EU’s current proposal will only be applied around 2034.
META Articles on PFAS
- EU Commission Must Extend Water Pollution Regulation To Include Pharmaceuticals, PFAS And (More) Pesticides
- Surreally Serious: PFAS Paralysis Follows Astonishing Scandal
- Talking Industry Accountability: Will The Polluter Pay?
- The Great (Toxic) Outdoors
- Braving The Elements: Which Brands Are Acting To Get The Toxic Forever Chemicals Off Your Raincoat?
- EEB’s 10-page primer explaining the basics of PFAS
- What does the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) say about PFAS?
- What does EEA say about PFAS?
- Learn more about FIBRA’s position
- Learn more about ChemSec’s position
- ECHA’s website
- EEA’s website
Videos on PFAS
The recordings of the third series of webinars on Europe’s PFAS problem: situation briefings by independent experts are available at this link.
Image Credits: ID 78668529