“Forever chemicals.” This is the ominous label often applied to PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), encapsulating both their functional utility and their harmful impact.
What Are PFAS?
The defining trait of PFAS is their persistence, owing to a carbon–fluorine bond that is the strongest chemical bond in organic chemistry. These synthetic, human-made chemicals don’t degrade, which led to rapid adoption after they were introduced back in the mid-1900s. Representing thousands of distinct chemicals, PFAS are commonly found in things like food packaging, non-stick cookware, textiles, manufacturing electronics, and much more.
PFAS also wind up contaminating their environment and have ended up in human blood, which are why regulatory agencies are beginning to clamp down. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that serum levels of PFAS appear to be higher in the U.S. than in some other countries. A study in January by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that discovery of PFAS contamination is growing at an alarming rate, with confirmed cases at more than 2,300 sites in 49 states. The Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) required by EPA for drinking water across the U.S. in 2016 resulted in the discovery of PFAS in drinking water supplies for 6 million U.S. residents, exceeding the EPA’s lifetime health advisory (70 ng/L). Lower analytical reporting limits and additional sampling of smaller utilities serving <10,000 individuals and private wells would greatly assist in further identifying PFAS contamination sources.
Research is ongoing regarding the harmful effects of PFAS on people and the ecosystem, but we know it’s not good. Exposure to certain PFAS chemicals studied so far has been linked to health issues such as cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease.
“It’s going to be a huge issue for decades to come,” says Caron Koll, consultant at Antea Group and PFAS expert.
Problematic as they may be, we can’t simply eliminate PFAS entirely, and not all PFAS are bad. In fact, some PFAS are used in life-saving medicines. They also serve essential functions that can’t presently be replicated by other existing alternatives. PFAS are fire-resistant, corrosion-resistant, and water-repellent. They prolong the life of products such as hydraulic fluids and are very effective for putting out petroleum fires, as a couple of practical examples.
“We need them,” says Caron, “but it's a matter of risk management.”
What To Do About PFAS
Many different industries interact with these compounds, including aerospace, automotive, mining, oil and gas, manufacturing, food and beverage, building and construction, medical and electronics.
If you’re aware that PFAS are present in your products or anywhere within your supply chain but don’t yet have a handle on it, we strongly recommend a PFAS screening to gain clarity on your situation and requirements. This is unfortunately a murky matter throughout many organizations and industries, because these compounds have often been treated as trade secrets — thus, unreported.
By conducting a PFAS screening, you’ll be able to make informed and optimal decisions around liability management strategies, compliance reporting, supply chain considerations, and benchmarking. At Antea Group, we recently launched a PFAS Screening Tool designed to make this process straightforward and efficient.
“If it’s essential for your business, manage that waste,” urges Caron, “so you’re not discharging it to a municipal wastewater treatment plant or water supply that’s going to come back for remediation cost recovery.”
These are the realities faced by modern businesses, and there are potentially dire consequences to inaction.
Read the full article on Antea Group USA's site here, or listen to the on-demand webinar on The Top 4 Actions to Take Regarding PFAS in a Changing Regulatory Environment. PFAS experts share the four fundamental steps you should take to either remove PFAS from your list of concerns or address this class of compounds in a way that minimizes your business risk. It’s time to manage the risks to your brand, product, legacy liability, and operations.