Whether consumers realize it or not, PFAS (per and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are in products they use every day. From pots and pans to fabrics, PFAS have made products more durable and easier to clean. Recent proposals in the European Union (EU), however, might lead to broader definitions of PFAS — which might leave suppliers scrambling to find replacement materials.
PFAS are known to accumulate in the bodies of living organisms and show toxic effects; some are toxic for reproduction, and others have shown carcinogenic properties. Hence the recent EU proposals for tighter regulations.
Definition of PFAS
PFAS all contain a carbon to fluorine bond. This is considered to be one of the strongest chemical bonds, giving materials with PFAS a high resistance to environmental degradation. But this high resistance also leads to high levels of bioaccumulation, meaning humans and other species will potentially build internal concentrations of PFAS as long as PFAS continue to be released into the environment. This can be a cause for concern when certain PFAS are toxic.
The use of PFAS is widespread. Because of their stability and strength, they have excellent surfactant properties which makes them ideal for coatings across all types of industries. While we may most easily recognize the use of PFAS on a non-stick pan or spill resistant fabric, their use is not limited to these products. According to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), “Some of the major industry sectors using PFAS include aerospace and [defense], automotive, aviation, textiles, leather and apparel, construction and household products, electronics, fire-fighting, food processing, and medical articles.”
Manufacturers using PFAS have acknowledged their risks and moved to short-chain PFAS that are suspected to be lower risk. However, the latest proposal in the EU has a very broad definition of PFAS that, if it proceeds, will have widespread ramifications across supply chains.
ECHA and PFAS
Several EU member states have submitted a proposal to ECHA that restricts PFAS per the definition of any substance that contains a -CF3 or -CF2- unit within its chemical structure. The rationale is that even though the molecular structure may contain other elements, it will ultimately degrade until it contains PFAS.
Using this definition of PFAS would mean that there are currently 4,700 different PFAS on the market with new ones being added every day. If this definition is adopted, then the use of any PFAS meeting this definition would be restricted in the EU. Additionally, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also recently proposed actions to regulate PFAS.
The impact of regulated PFAS can be seen in the commonly used Teflon, which is chemically known as PTFE (Polyterafluoroethylene or (-CF2-)n). It is used both alone and within plastic composites, fabrics and coatings. This substance is used across numerous industries from aerospace to computers.
PTFE has been on the regulatory radar for some time, and many alternatives have been developed using shorter chain structures. These shorter chains were thought to be less persistent and dissipate within the environment, but new data is not indicating this is true and so they remain included in the definition of PFAS explained above.
Preparing for Changes
This changing definition of PFAS means that manufacturers need to have the information for not only the materials that make up their products but also the chemistry of those materials. Identifying the use of PFAS early is important to your business. These substances are used for critical properties that contribute to the durability, functionality and quality of your products. Finding suitable replacements will not be easy, so getting ahead of the issue will be the key in finding success.
Tetra Tech experts are ready and available to assist you with analyzing your materials of construction and provide you with a clearer picture of the impact that any potential PFAS regulation may pose. Contact us today to learn more at [email protected].