Non-polymer PFAS can build up in blood protein of animals, and is not always removed quickly. This means that predators eating PFAS-contaminated food will have higher levels in their bloodstream, and concentrations can increase up the food chain. Studies suggest that build up of PFAS is similar to those of other Persistent Organic Pollutants such as DDT.PFAS are estimated to be settling in arctic regions at rates of tens to hundreds of kilograms per year (25-850kg per year), depending on the specific PFAS chemical in question. Certain PFAS are released as gases to the environment and are blown a long way by wind and air currents in the atmosphere,. These gas PFAS will over time degrade to more persistent chemicals like PFOS and PFOA. This may be one reason why PFAS of environmental concern have been found in remote regions such as the Arctic as well as near PFAS production sitesPFAS including PFOS and PFOA have been found in air samples around Europe. The chemicals are found in small quantities, but appear in almost all samples tested. PFAS enters the atmosphere both from factories and the air inside our homes. PFAS is found in treated waste water from industrial and domestic sources and has been found in both rivers and groundwater. Conventional drinking water processes will not remove PFAS.PFAS-coated clothes that are thrown away will often end up either incinerated or in landfill. Unless incinerated at very high temperatures (>1000oC), fluorinated polymers could release more harmful PFAS during burning. PFAS of environmental concern have also been found in landfill leachate. Non-polymer PFAS are used in the production of fluorinated polymers. The manufacture of stain-resistant finishes generally releases these PFASs into the environment, both by air and water emissions. They are very hard to remove during water treatment. Workers in textiles factories are some of the population most exposed to these potentially harmful chemicals. Small quantities of PFAS will be removed during wash and wear of products containing PFAS. This includes fluorinated polymers used on stain-resistant coatings, and non-polymers that remain on clothes after production (Lassen et al. 2015).Most UK waste still ends up in landfill, and this includes PFAS-containing products. Studies have shown that the liquid coming from landfills (known as leachate) often contain non-polymer PFAS chemicals. In the USA the total quantities were estimated at 563-638 kg in 2013. To properly break down PFAS chemicals high temperature (1000oC or more) incineration is recommended. Incineration of municipal waste does not necessarily reach these temperatures (min temp. required is 850oC), and the incomplete breakdown could release non-polymer PFAS.Wash and wear of clothing that contains PFAS-based stain-resistant or water repellent finishes release PFAS to the environment. Coatings are thought to lose effectiveness after 20-30 washes. This can include non-polymer PFAS, remnant from production or as a break-down product of side-chain polymers (Lassen et al. 2015). The manufacture of stain-resistant finishes releases PFAS into the environment, both by air and water emissions. PFAS are very hard to remove during water treatment. Industrial emissions are estimated to be the biggest source of these chemicals to the environment.

EU to ban all non-essential uses of PFAS: Will the UK be equally ambitious?

The new European Chemicals Strategy announces many ambitious plans and puts comprehensive PFAS policy front and centre. Recognising the widespread contamination of EU soils and waters and the growing number of associated health impacts, the commission commit to banning all PFAS, allowing their use only where they are proven to be irreplaceable and essential to society. But the big question on Fidra’s mind right now is ‘will the UK be equally ambitious?’.

Per- or poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of over 4,700 industrial chemicals. Despite being widely used in everything from carpets to cosmetics, cookware and food packaging, the evidence is now clear, PFAS are damaging our environment and impacting our health.

The EU’s plan for PFAS

There’s a lot to be excited about right now for those of us focussed on preventing chemical pollution. The EU’s new Chemicals Strategy sets out an impressive list of commitments aimed at achieving a toxic-free environment. They highlight key goals that Fidra have long-supported, such as a clean circular economy, transparency in chemical content and swift action to ban many of the most harmful chemicals in consumer products. And they’ve achieved this without overlooking the all-important need for funding and investment. If effectively put into practice, in full and without delay, these commitments stand to make a lasting change to our global environment.

Importantly, the strategy singles out per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as chemicals that require immediate attention. Referring to the widespread contamination of European soil and water (including drinking water), the number of people this impacts, and the ‘full spectrum of illnesses’ that PFAS has been linked to, the commission commits to a blanket ban on the use of PFAS for all purposes not deemed critical to society.

Echoing the words of the UK’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Rebecca Pow MP,  earlier this year, the EU strategy also reinforces the need to address PFAS through group-based legislation. Our current one-by-one approach, continually replacing one known harmful chemical for its next closest neighbour, is not working. Regrettable substitution has been demonstrated time and again with ineffective PFAS legislation, something the commission is no longer willing to accept.

Further plans for PFAS include a commitment to encourage global participation in PFAS policy, financial support mechanisms to encourage research and innovation and greater investment in developing remediation methodologies.

Meanwhile in the UK…

Fidra have been working closely with UK retailers and industry, encouraging voluntary actions that will set the stage for our own comprehensive PFAS legislation. We’ve already seen one major UK supermarket commit to removing PFAS from their food packaging, suppliers getting their products tested and companies investing in innovative alternatives. Now is the time to implement stringent UK policy, supporting companies that are already taking action and ensuring everyone plays their part in our greener future. With this in mind, we reiterate our call for immediate action that bans the use of PFAS in paper and board food packaging. This is a key source of environmental PFAS pollution and human exposure, and is a sector that is currently seeing rapid market growth.

Beyond this, the EU has set a clear precedent. If we are to prevent the ongoing toxification of our natural environment by this persistent and undermanaged chemical group, the UK must now commit to equally ambitious goals, tackling all non-essential PFAS use within their own developing chemicals strategy. And, having previously referred to the strategy in response to parliamentary questions on PFAS legislation [Questions by Matthew Offord MP, 17/02/20, Ref 13973], we’re hopeful they will.


Fidra’s project lead, Dr Kerry Dinsmore, says

We have an opportunity right now for the UK to take a leading role in chemical management, setting a global standard in public health and environmental protection for others to follow. With industry already taking action on PFAS-use in food packaging, now is the time to support and build on this momentum with clear policy. PFAS has no place in sustainable food packaging. And looking forward, we want to see our own chemicals strategy going beyond the EU, laying out a clear timescale for a PFAS-free future.”


Download Fidra’s recommendations for UK policy by clicking on the link below.