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PFAS in water

It probably should come as no surprise that the so-called “forever chemicals” are not beholden to geographical borders or boundaries. PFAS are a growing environmental concern worldwide. No matter where your business operates, it is important to be aware of the local view of these chemicals and the regulatory plans in place to address them. 


What Are PFAS?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of human-made chemicals used in many industries and consumer products. PFAS were invented in the 1930s and rose to prominence over the following decades thanks to their handy resistance to water, grease, and stains. Among the most well-known applications of PFAS in recognizable contexts: non-stick cookware and firefighting foam.


As chemicals, PFAS are characterized by their persistence – they do not break down quickly or easily in their environments. This can cause them to accumulate over time in soil and water, leading to potential ramifications for surrounding habits, wildlife, and humans. 



Why PFAS Present Risks for Businesses and Communities

Studies have revealed potential associations between PFAS exposure and a variety of health effects, including altered immune and thyroid function, liver disease, lipid and insulin dysregulation, kidney disease, adverse reproductive and developmental outcomes, and cancer. 


Our understanding of the true extent of human and animal impact from PFAS is still limited, but communities need to be vigilant in creating awareness and taking action. As Antea Group explains, “delaying this priority any further could lead to mounting costs and complications.”


Organizations have already been under scrutiny for allegedly overlooking the known risks of PFAS. “These documents reveal clear evidence that the chemical industry knew about the dangers of PFAS and failed to let public regulators, and even their employees know the risks,” said Tracey Woodruff, director of the UCSF program on reproductive health, in a TIME article focused on these companies. “As many countries pursue legal and legislative action to curb PFAS production, we hope they are aided by the timeline of evidence presented in this paper.”


It’s clear that the long-term reputational risks of not taking PFAS seriously as a business are significant, not to mention the possibility of litigation and lawsuits. It’s important to think about your organization’s PFAS risk level in a comprehensive way, accounting for all potential implications for your employees, customers, stakeholders, and supply chain. 


It’s also important to be up to speed on what’s happening in your particular region regarding PFAS and regulatory advancements.


Global PFAS News and Trends

The response to PFAS risk from a regulatory standpoint has varied around the world. Some countries have banned certain types of PFAS altogether; others have taken almost no material action up to this point. A quick rundown of the latest trends and development in several notable regions:


PFAS in the United States

In the US, several states are enacting laws to restrict or ban PFAS entirely ahead of federal regulations; for instance, Maine passed a pioneering law prohibiting PFAS in products, effective 2030, with companies mandated to report PFAS usage starting January 1, 2023 – resulting in numerous extension requests. 


At the federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) aims to classify seven PFAS as hazardous substances under the Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act  (CERCLA), allowing enforcement for cleanup by responsible parties, proposing stringent reporting laws for PFAS in products, regulating discharge permits to water systems, and establishing maximum contaminant levels for drinking water, possibly as low as 4 nanograms per liter for  perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).


One April 10, 2024, the EPA announced the final National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) for six PFAS establishing legally enforceable levels, called Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), for six PFAS in drinking water. PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, PFNA, and HFPO-DA as contaminants with individual MCLs, and PFAS mixtures containing at least two or more of PFHxS, PFNA, HFPO-DA, and PFBS using a Hazard Index MCL to account for the combined and co-occurring levels of these PFAS in drinking water. EPA also finalized health-based, non-enforceable Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLGs) for these PFAS. EPA is also making unprecedented funding available to help ensure that all people have clean and safe water. This new regulation is expected to over many years prevent PFAS exposure in drinking water for approximately 100 million people, prevent thousands of deaths, and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses.


PFAS-related headlines continue to emerge in the United States including hundreds of contaminated drinking water wells being discovered by military testing in Washington.


PFAS in Europe

Experts in England were alarmed after detecting the presence of PFAS at 17 of the country’s 18 water companies, further raising the profile of this issue in a region of the world where it is already being taken seriously. There’s an active push taking place for tighter limits in the UK, even as the government claims current safety standards are “exceptionally high.”


In the EU, PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS are restricted under the Stockholm Convention. LC-PFCAs are currently being reviewed and their salts and related compounds are proposed for listing in Annexes A, B and/or C to the Stockholm Convention. 

On August 4th 2021, the European Commission published Regulation (EU) 2021/1297 to amend the restrictions in REACH Annex XVII. This Regulation restricts Perfluorocarboxylic acids containing 9 to 14 carbon atoms in the chain (C9-C14 PFCAs) and applies from 25 February 2023. 


Authorities in Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway jointly proposed a restriction on the manufacture, placing on the market and use of PFAS. The proposal was submitted to the European Chemical Agency on 13 January 2023. The substances in the scope of the proposed restriction encompass more than 10 000 substances. The review process of this proposal is ongoing.

Several PFAS are on the REACH Candidate List due to their risk to human health and the environment, especially through water sources. 


Bans on certain firefighting foams containing PFOS and PFOA have been in place since 2011 and 2017 respectively, and a proposal to restrict all PFAS in firefighting foams has been adopted by RAC, with sector-specific transition periods proposed before implementation.


PFAS in Asia and Latin America

In Asia and Latin America, PFAS regulation is currently limited, with some adherence to restrictions on PFOS or PFOA under the Stockholm Convention, while most PFAS substances remain unregulated. However, recognizing the growing urgency of PFAS pollution as a health and environmental concern, these regions are expected to undergo regulatory changes in the coming years. China is one country that could be moving toward stricter regulation in coming years.


Japan categorized PFOS as a Class I Specified Chemical Substance in 2009, enforcing export restrictions per the Stockholm Convention, and in 2020, set a temporary drinking water limit of 50 nanograms per liter for both PFOS and PFOA while banning their manufacturing and use along with related salts.


Brazil has proposed a bill (Bill No. 2726/2023) known as the Brazilian National PFAS Control Policy. This proposal set a framework of actions, measures and instruments for control, monitoring, surveillance, prevention, and remediation of environmental and health effects associated with PFAS. 


Make a PFAS Action Plan 

An article at Reuters explained why PFAS trends are creating new areas of focus for businesses.


“In short,” the authors wrote, “companies can no longer plead ignorance as a viable defense to potential liability arising from the presence of PFAS chemicals in their products, even when those products are provided by another entity (e.g., completed product packaging purchased from a vendor). Companies are viewed as knowledgeable and responsible, and are thus at risk, from individual plaintiffs, classes, and municipalities.”


“Perhaps most importantly,” the piece continued, “trending targets are now companies that may not at all be involved in the product or chemical manufacturing itself, and the ability to direct liability to ‘upstream’ manufacturers is quickly evaporating with increased bankruptcy filings and multiparty litigation where those upstream product manufacturers are also defendants.”


What can you do if you believe PFAS might be a factor somewhere in your operational scope? We recommend a four-step plan:


  1. Identify PFAS in your process and supply chain
  2. Collaborate with the supply chain vendor to eliminate non-essential PFAS
  3. Keep up to date with and anticipate regulations
  4. Research and develop substitutions


These can be complex undertakings, so don’t feel compelled to go it alone. Reach out to Inogen Alliance to connect with our network of EHS experts and specialists around the globe.


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