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The fallout of ‘forever’ chemicals: the sticky issue of PFAS (Part 2)

As discussed in our last article on perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), the impact of these ‘forever chemicals’ on the environment and human health is well-documented. Whilst there are thousands to contend with, there exists a core group of more widely used compounds which dominate both the research and the wider conversation surrounding PFAS repercussions. These are outlined in the chart below, alongside their frequent uses and some identified potential risks.

 

Acronym

Full Analyte Name

Common Uses

Risks/impact

PFAA

Perfluorinated alkyl acid

Represents a class of fluorinated compounds containing an active terminal group (such as a carboxylate, sulfonate, etc); usage is dependent on the specific functional group added.

Bioaccumulative with suspected possible health effects.

PFOA

Perfluorooctanoic acid

Fire-fighting foam, water- and oil-repellent coatings; also used for synthesizing PTFE (refer to PTFE definition below).

Prolonged exposure may lead to increased risk of prostate cancer in males.

PFOS

Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid

Fabric protector, fire-fighting foam, anti-reflective coating, primer in paints/varnishes.

Can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. 

PFBS

Perfluorobutanesulfonic acid

Fabric protector.

Evidence of probable serious effects to the environment and human health, including thyroid, liver, kidney, and haematological systems.

PFCA

Perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acid

Personal care products; used for synthesizing PFTE (refer to PTFE definition below).

Bioaccumulative; unclear whether they pose a risk.

PFCs

Perfluoroalkyl compounds

Represents a class of fluorinated compounds containing only C-F and C-C bonds (no C-H bonds); usage is dependent on the specific functional group added.

Elevated exposure associated with reduced humoral immune response to routine childhood immunizations.

PTFE

Polytetrafluoroethylene

Non-stick coating for cookware, fabric protectors (also known as Teflon®).

Generally safe, but can release toxic chemicals into the air when exposed to temperatures above 300°C, leading to polymer fume fever (rare).

PFNA

Perfluorononanoic acid

Used for synthesizing PVDF (low density plastic).

Developmental and immune system toxicant.

Lawsuits and Litigation

One major factor which has contributed to the prevalence of PFAS compounds is their use in fire-fighting foams. Foam generation depends upon the presence of one or more surfactants, which, historically, have consisted of perfluorinated compounds (PFCS). Whilst well-suited to suppressing fires, the use of these compounds in foams has led to a documented increase in the concentration of PFCS in soil and groundwater around the world.

In February, despite the Australian government’s claim that there is “limited to no evidence” linking PFAS to human disease, Shine Lawyers reached an in-principle agreement with the Australian Department of Defence, securing a reported $212.5 million AUD for three communities affected by PFAS contamination linked to the use of PFAS compounds on army bases, fire stations, and industrial sites from the 1970s to the 2000s. The law firm is currently pursuing 17 more cases around the country. Meanwhile, the PFAS remediation market in the United States, where 700 PFAS-contaminated sites have been identified, is set to grow in size. Legal actions have successfully been brought against manufacturers Dupont, Chemours, and 3M by affected inpiduals and states, and the Environmental Protection Agency issued health advisory levels of 70ppt for PFOS and PFOA in public water supplies in 2016.

It’s worth noting that, until recently, most of the conversation around PFAS has been focused on groundwater pollution. In April this year, however, a group of researchers from Bennington College, Vermont, published research indicating that Norlite, a hazardous waste incinerator in Cohoes, New York, had burned Aqueous Fire Fighting Foam (AFFF) in 2018 and 2019. This led to nearby communities being exposed to airborne PFAS.

“There is no evidence that incineration effectively destroys PFAS compounds,” the researchers wrote in a press release. “Residents of Hoosick Falls, Petersburgh, and Bennington were exposed to PFOA in the air and in their drinking water for an unknown period of time.”

Unsurprisingly, lawyers and remediation contractors in the UK have been watching these developments overseas with interest. It’s known that firefighting foam containing PFAS has been widely used for training purposes on US airbases in the UK, whilst the 2005 Buncefield explosion in Hertfordshire lead to increased ground pollution. More remediation cases in Britain are expected in the coming years.

Moving Forwards

To ensure consumers have access to safe drinking water, then, proper testing and treatment, guided by accurate testing and data reporting, must take place. For this reason, a number of legislative measures have been introduced around the world in the last few years to fight PFAS contamination, with groundwater representing one of the campaign’s focal points.

In 2009, the U.S. EPA has established guidelines for proper extraction and analysis of perfluorinated compounds in drinking water (Method 537), whilst in Europe, PFOS and PFOA are listed under Annex A of the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants (POPs), denoting that they should be eliminated from production and use by parties to the Convention. In June 2019, Denmark announced a ban on PFAS-treated food contact materials; several other EU member states have set national limit values for water, soil, and textiles.

These are early days for PFAS legislation. With over 4700 known varieties, the research and monitoring required to set standards on a case by case basis would be a lengthy and highly resource-intensive process. Instead, complementary and precautionary approaches to managing PFAS are being explored.

In the EU, this includes the regulation of PFAS as a class, or as subgroups, based on toxicity or chemical similarities. Under the recast of the EU Drinking Water Directive, a new PFAS ‘group limit’ value for drinking water of 0.5µg/L is being considered, in addition to 0.1µg/L limits for 16 inpidual PFAS. In June 2019, the European Council of Ministers called for the development of an action plan to “eliminate all non-essential uses of PFAS.”

As the world moves towards a zero carbon future, it’s important to remember the wider range of environmental pollutants, the usage of which will also need to be revised. Manufacturers are already working to develop more sustainable alternatives to fill the growing gap in the market left behind by the vanishing PFAS sector. Whilst government bodies can move the process forward, flagging up problems via legislation, it’s up to innovators to find the solutions.

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