The "forever" chemical we've fallen out of love with
From non-stick coated frying pans, microwave popcorn bags and dental floss to yoga pants, firefighting foams and wastewater systems, our modern life has come to depend on a man-made chemical called PFAS.
PFAS – shorthand for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances - are ostensibly “magical” chemicals that are resistant to heat, grease and water and possess excellent electrical insulation properties.
For these reasons, they have been used in a vast array of household items and industrial products. Testifying to their ubiquity, one study has found PFAS are used in almost all industries and numerous consumer products, identifying more than 200 use categories and subcategories for over 1400 different types of PFAS.1
But their magic is wearing off.
Their durability and versatility are now more curse than blessing. PFAS chemicals never break down, and persist in air, water and even our blood.
They also “bioaccumulate” – entering the food web by building up in individual organisms at the bottom of the chain such as fish.
Several studies have linked PFAS chemicals – more than 3,000 types are in circulation -- to various health problems such as kidney failure, testicular and breast cancer, thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels and reduced response to vaccines.2
After years of public outcry, regulators and legislators around the world are finally starting to crack down on PFAS and treating it as an urgent public health and environmental crisis.
In the US, where an estimated 97 per cent of citizens have PFAS in their blood,3 President Joe Biden has announced a sweeping plan to ban the hazardous substances, while the European Union is banning around 200 PFAS starting from 2023.
“These regulatory and legislative moves are likely to give rise to a wave of environmental litigation against PFAS manufacturers and industrial producers in the next few years,” says Columbia Law School Professor Michael Gerrard, founder and director of Sabin Center for Climat Change Law and one of the most prominent environmental lawyers in the US.
“While current and legacy polluters are bracing themselves for lawsuits and class actions filings, demand will also rise significantly for environmental and medical monitoring, testing and remediation."
Chemical on tap
Campaigns against PFAS began long before President Biden’s bill, with lawsuits against manufacturers recorded as early as 2010.4
But it was only in October 2021 that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled a strategic three-year roadmap tackling PFAS.
Specifically, the EPA is conducting research on current and emerging treatments for PFAS-related health problems, the remediation, and safe disposal or destruction of such substances, and the prevention of PFAS discharges into the natural environment. The agency also wants to accelerate the contamination clean-up.5
The priority is water. President Biden has set aside USD10 billion to remove PFAS from the nation’s drinking water. That's no coincidence. Access to clean and safe water is not only a pressing public health and environmental problem in the US, but also a major political and social issue thanks to scandals such as the poisoned drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan in 2014.
Prof Gerrard expects to see a flurry of new regulations in the US in the coming years, including new drinking water and air standards for PFAS as measured by parts-per-trillion levels, new contaminant monitoring regimes and limits for manufacturers.
The clean-up operation won't be easy, however.
After all, these tiny chemical particles were designed to last forever; for certain types of PFAS, the half-life is estimated to be as long as 500 years.6
This is why the industry is experimenting with emerging treatment technologies. Activated carbon is one of the most commonly used, accounting for around 65 per cent of the market.7
Activated carbon, a porous material made with high carbon contents such as wood or coal, can effectively remove PFAS compounds from drinking water.
Towards a PFAS-free future
As legislators and regulators move to ban PFAS, an international team of researchers are proposing an orderly elimination of PFAS-containing products from commerce, sorting products into three categories – nonessential, substitutable and essential.8
The team, led by Stockholm University Professor Ian Cousins, modelled the proposal on an international treaty which successfully led to the phasing out of the production and use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) – another once ubiquitous dream chemical that has helped deplete Earth’s protective stratospheric ozone layer.
Under the 1987 Montreal Protocol, the world has managed to quickly eliminate CFCs as propellants in most aerosol cans – labelled nonessential -- and other uses of CFCs deemed essential such as inhalers to deliver asthma drugs were gradually phased out with the development of appropriate substitutes.
Cousins’ team suggests a similar path for PFAS.
The challenge is to find a viable replacement for PFAS that is not only environmentally friendly but also cost effective. Cousins warns against making yet another “forever” chemical to replace PFAS. He points to the example of GenX, which was developed more than a decade ago as a less harmful substitute, but turned out to be more toxic than the substance it replaced.9
Instead, he says, manufacturers should design molecules that degrade after use, based on the principle of green, or sustainable, chemistry.
The food industry, for example, is experimenting with various methods to produce PFAS-free food packaging. Some of the innovative sustainable packaging uses bamboo, palm leaf, bio-based wax and clay coatings as well as Polyactic Acid (PLA), a compostable plastic typically made from corn.
In fashion, companies such as H&M, Burberry and Uniqlo have already banned the use of PFAS in their products while those from other industries such as IKEA and Whole Foods have also ditched the use of “forever” chemicals, encouraging others to follow suit.
A transition to a PFAS-free society would take some time. But significant investment in research and development should unlock significant opportunities in innovative technologies that could become the next-generation healthier alternative.