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. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17554424 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 PFASs 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.

Regulations

The regulation of PFAS chemistry has focused almost exclusively on two synthetic chemicals of concern: Perfluoro-octanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluoro-octane-sulphonate (PFOS).

Awareness of the widespread contamination of the environment with these compounds has grown over the last decades, alongside a growing understanding of their toxicity. This has led to restrictions in manufacture and in the market for these and associated chemicals – both through voluntary phase-out and through national and international regulations.

Many NGOs and researchers remain concerned that these restrictions do not go far enough. The phase-out in the USA and Europe has led to an increase of PFOA used in production in Asia, and often these products are still imported to Europe. The restriction of specific chemicals such as PFOA and PFOS has led to replacement for compounds with a similar chemical composition and structure. These chemical compounds have been less well studied but may have similar characteristics and environmental effects. This potential ‘regrettable substitution’ is not only potentially damaging to our environment and health, but also costly to industry, as they replace one chemical with another that may be banned in the near future. This is why NGOs often call for PFAS to be restricted as a chemical group, rather than focusing on specific chemicals.

Here we describe the current and planned regulations for PFAS chemicals around the globe, as well as voluntary phase-out initiatives.

The Stockholm Convention is a global treaty that aims to protect the environment and human health from the effects of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). It has been in force since 2004 and is undersigned by 152 countries of the world (although not all have ratified the agreement). POPs are chemicals that have been proven to be resistant to breakdown in the environment, able to accumulate in animals and work their way up the food chain, and are toxic or potentially toxic to animals and humans. 30 chemicals are currently restricted under the convention – those chemicals listed under Annex A are designated to be completely prohibited, for manufacture, import and export. Those under Annex B are not completely banned, but their production and manufacture is restricted. Annex C concerns substances that are unintentionally produced. Where these chemicals are produced, there must be continual efforts to reduce and, as much as possible, eliminate their emission.

PFOS has been classified as a persistent organic pollutant since 2009 and is included under Annex B of the Stockholm Convention. Restrictions apply to PFOS, its salts, as well as related chemical perfluoroctane sulfonyl fluoride (PFOSF). The use of these chemicals is currently exempted for certain uses where alternative chemicals need to be phased in, for example in electronic parts, medical devices and for use during oil production. An exemption was made for PFOS production and use on a variety of products in certain countries, which include textiles and fire-fighting foams. This exemption expired 5 years after its implementation according to Stockholm convention rules (i.e. in 2014).

PFOA was added to Annex A of the Stockholm Convention in 2019, meaning its manufacture, import and export is now prohibited. There are a few exceptions, such as production for fire-fighting foams, invasive and implantable medical devices and use in manufacture of high-voltage electrical wire, which may be permitted but only with prior registration.

PFHxS (perfluorohexane sulfanoate, a short chain alternative to PFOS), its salts and PFHxS-related compounds are currently under review as POPs for restriction under the Stockholm Convention.

How it works: REACH is a European Union Regulation that was introduced in 2006 to regulate the production and use of chemical substances. The regulations, which are thought to be the most complex introduced in the last 20 years, aim to increase traceability of chemicals in Europe, and make users and producers of chemicals more responsible for ensuring safety of their products.

The regulation classifies industrially-made chemicals into categories according to their potential effect on the environment and human health, and requires any manufacturers using a variety of chemical substances to register their use, allowing for tracking of chemical usage across Europe. Around 25,000 chemical substances have been registered under REACH by companies producing and using them. Over 200 chemicals have been classed as Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC). Companies must be authorised to use these under strict regulation and in the long term these substances will need to be substituted for less harmful ones.

PFOS was originally included in the restricted substances list of REACH. However, since its addition to the Stockholm Convention in 2009, it has been regulated under different legislation relating to its classification as a persistent organic pollutant (POP) [Regulation EC 850/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council on Persistent Organic Pollutants].

PFOA has been classified as a SVHC since 2013 (EU REACH Reg EC No 206-397-9). New measures to enforce tighter regulation of PFOA, its salts and related substances in the EU will be implemented from July 2020, in line with PFOA’s recent addition to Annex A of the Stockholm Convention.

PFHxS (perfluorohexane sulfonic acid) is a short chain alternative to PFOS. Since June 2017 this substance has also been listed as a substance of very high concern, due to evidence that it does not break down in the environment, and that it builds up in animals and up the food chain (very persistent, very bioaccumulative).

A summary of the these and other PFAS recognised as SVHC under REACH are given in the table below:

There is a lot set to change in the coming months, with the implications of BREXIT continuing to be revealed and the pending arrival of the UK Chemicals Strategy.

From latest government discussions, it now looks like a UK REACH is the most likely outcome for chemical regulation upon leaving the EU. Exactly how this will work and how long it will take remains to be seen, however we have been assured that current EU chemical restrictions will be upheld throughout this transitionary period. With still so many unknowns, there is concern over the UK’s capacity to replicate such a comprehensive regulatory system and what this could mean for the standard of chemical regulations moving forward.

A consultation on a draft of the UK Chemical Strategy is due to take place in 2021-22 and is expected to outline the main government priorities for the sector.

Follow key updates on this on the ChemTrust dedicated Brexit blog.

 

A call for change: phasing out of all non-essential PFAS

The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Luxemburg and Germany have all expressed their desire for a group-based approach and are pushing for comprehensive action on all non-essential PFAS in all products.

In a letter to the EU in December 2019, they called for a future allowing only essential use of PFAS and for a group-based approach to be taken rather than the “current inefficient substance-by-substance assessment”.

Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have agreed to prepare a joint REACH restriction proposal on PFAS. The call for evidence for this proposal opened in May 2020, with the five countries encouraging scientists, NGOs and companies that make and use PFAS to come forward and provide information. Once the call for evidence closes in July of this year, the proposal is expected to take two years to pull together. All being well, restrictions could come into force as of 2025.

PFOS is restricted under EU laws on persistent organic pollutants, but not entirely banned.  The amount of PFOS present in substances, including on textiles such as school uniforms, is restricted as follows:

Product Limit
Substances or preparations The concentration of PFOS <=10 mg/kg
Semi-finished products or articles, or parts The concentration of PFOS <0.1 % by weight calculated with reference to the mass of structurally or micro-structurally distinct parts that contain PFOS.
Textiles or other coated materials The amount of PFOS i<1 μg/m2 of the coated material.
Excepted uses: Photoresists or anti reflective coatings for photolithography processes, photographic coatings, provided certain conditions are met.

Due to ongoing concern for product safety, some countries have decided to go beyond international and EU regulation limits for these PFASs of concern.

Denmark

As of July 2020, Denmark has become the first country to bring in legislation banning PFAS from their food packaging. Mogens Jensen, Denmark’s Minister of Food expressed that he would “not accept the risk of harmful fluorinated substances migrating from the packaging to our food. These substances represent such a health problem that we can no longer wait for the EU”.

The ban refers to all organic fluorinated compounds in paper and cardboard food packaging, and whist it is still possible for recycled paper to be used as a food contact material, materials with any level of fluorine content, now require a barrier to prevent the chemicals migrating into the food.

Norway

In 2014, Norway banned the use of PFOA in consumer products, including all solid and liquid consumer products as well as to textiles and carpets. However, the restriction does not apply to food packaging, food contact materials or medical devices. The limits related to the ban are as follows:

  • PFOA in a liquid mixture – 0.001% (10 mg/kg)
  • PFOA in a solid product – 0.1% (1,000 mg/kg)
  • PFOA in textiles – 1 μg/m2

(i.e. same as those of PFOS across Europe).

Both PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured in the USA, due to voluntary phase-out by industrial leaders.

The PFOA Stewardship Program was set up in 2006 by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inviting the 8 leading fluorinated chemistry companies to participate. The aim was to phase out emissions of PFOA, and precursors (chemicals that may transform into PFOA into the environment) from factories, with a 95% reduction proposed by 2010, and total global elimination from their processes by 2015. All participating companies met the goals of the programme, some by using alternative chemicals (e.g. short chain PFASs) in their production, others by leaving the fluorinated chemistry market entirely. This stopped the use and production of PFOA in the United States, although it is still possible to import items that contain PFOA or where it has been used in production. To ensure any new companies wishing to handle PFOA in the USA are regulated, regulations known as Significant New Use Rules (SNURs) mean new companies have to notify the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 90 days before any import, manufacture or processing of PFOA, so that the EPA may review, and potentially place limits on any such use.

Production of PFOS in the USA was primarily through the 3M company for use in their Scotchgard product. After negotiations with the EPA in 2000, the company committed to phasing out PFOS and related chemicals (as well as PFOA) from their production.

By signing up to particular standards, companies are able to label themselves with a variety of recognisable standards. These are aimed at consumers, allowing them a level of confidence in the products they purchase above and beyond current regulations. Common textile standards include Blue Sign and Oeko-tex. Current criteria mean that both Blue Sign and Oeko-tex labelled clothing can still contain PFAS, although only short-chain varieties of non-polymers are acceptable.