Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a class of human-made chemicals commonly used to make products resistant to water, stains, and/or heat. They are used in almost all industries from flotation fluids in aerospace gyroscopes to cleaning burn injuries, and are also used in many consumer products such as floor polish, sportswear, non-stick cookware, and windshield wiper fluid[i]. Nicknamed “forever chemicals”, PFAS are highly persistent in the environment and can accumulate in the body, with some shown to be toxic to reproduction or causing cancer[ii].
Studies over the past few years have detected PFAS in Arctic Ocean marine life, in vegetables grown in areas with contaminated the soil or water, and in human blood serum[iii]. Exposure via food and water were previously believed to be the primary routes of exposure, but a study released in August from the University of Rhode Island and Green Science Policy Institute suggests that inhalation of PFAS chemicals may present a third major route of exposure[iv]. Connecticut officials are also planning to inspect PFAS levels at over 2400 sites after water samples from some neighbourhood wells tested above the state-recommended limit[v].
As more information about PFAS emerges, regulations and advisories to control exposure are rapidly changing:
- In the United States, the PFAS Action Act was drafted in April at the federal level to designate PFAS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980[vi], while several states have enacted or proposed their own legislation as well[vii]. Maine, for example, adopted a law on July 15 that will ban the sale of products using PFAS by 2030, unless regulators deem the use of PFAS as “currently unavoidable”[viii].
- In Canada, some regulations already exist to control certain PFAS, but a Notice of intent to address the broad class of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances was published in April which seeks to collect and monitor information about PFAS and determine if they should be addressed as a whole class rather than individual substances.
- In Europe, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) is planning to submit a proposal in October 2021 that will limit PFAS in firefighting foams[ix], while Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden officially informed ECHA in July that they plan to submit a Restriction Dossier in 2022 that will ban the manufacturing, use, and placement of PFAS on the EU market[x].
Due to the widespread use of PFAS in the global supply chain, regulations controlling PFAS are expected to be implemented or revised throughout the world to help address the increasing public concern surrounding these chemicals. Manufacturers of products that use PFAS are advised to monitor the regulations in their areas of intended sale to determine if their products are affected.