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The fallout of ‘forever’ chemicals: the sticky issue of PFAS (Part 1)

The world may be in lockdown, but regulatory developments to protect consumer interests continue, as we saw with the recent call by five European states for additional investigation of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Two PFAS compounds, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), were banned under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) of 2001. Now Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark are inviting submissions of evidence regarding further PFAS impact, with a view to proposing increased regulation under the EU’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) law, in order to limit risk to consumer health and the environment.

This action follows on the heels of the US Senate’s decision in June last year to include regulation of 172 PFAS as an addition to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This legislation also sets enforceable limits on those PFAS compounds most commonly found in drinking water and schedules an end date for use of ubiquitous PFAS-containing firefighting foam. As European countries made the decision to open up the PFAS regulation discussion, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was at the same time taking the next steps in implementing these new stateside requirements. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said, “The inclusion of these 172 PFAS on the Toxics Release Inventory list will provide EPA and the public with important information on these emerging chemicals of concern.”

Characteristics and effects

Why, though, are PFAS compounds causing this intensifying concern? We have been using these resilient man-made chemicals since the 1950s, taking advantage of their oil and water resistance to produce cookware coatings, food packaging, firefighting foam, dental floss, eyeliner, and a wide range of textiles and clothing, amongst others. Unfortunately, the hardiness of these chemicals, that provided us with so many benefits in consumer products and industrial uses, is now the reason for growing global concern.

The carbon and fluorine bonds that make up PFAS molecules are so strong that they don’t naturally degrade, leaving scientists unable even to estimate their environmental half-life and earning them the nickname ‘forever chemicals’ due to their persistence. More than 4700 PFAS compounds exist, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), and after decades of use and little to no deterioration, many of these are accumulating in our surroundings – and bodies – to an alarming extent.

Studies have shown PFAS to be present in the blood of 97% of the US population, and given their persistence and multiple potential routes into the body, bioaccumulation is a particular concern.  Research conducted to date reveals many possible links between human exposure to PFAS and adverse health effects, including metabolic changes, reduced fertility, reduced immune function, liver and kidney damage, and reduced foetal growth. In animal studies PFAS have also been shown to be carcinogenic, and links have been drawn to increased rates of certain human cancers in specific high-PFAS areas.

With the risks of PFAS exposure now well-documented and the prevalence of these compounds in our environment, new regulatory scrutiny in countries across the world comes as little surprise, with high quality testing of water and food crucial to ensuring consumer safety. At Dr. Ehrenstorfer, we are continually evolving our product portfolio to maintain pace with evolving analytical requirements. Further-reaching legislation may also follow, as we gain more insight into the effects of different PFAS formulations and data about their presence around us. In part two, we’ll look in more detail at the impact of growing PFAS anxiety on legislation and business, and explore specific PFAS compounds and their effects.

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