New rules are set to tighten controls on PFOAs and other members of the PFAS family of chemicals internationally. 

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a huge group of over 4,000 man-made chemicals, which, due to their oil and water resistance, have been used since the 1940s in a host of industrial and consumers goods.

Highly water-soluble and mobile in the environment, they have been found to bioaccumulate in blood serum in humans and animals. International research, including that backed by the US EPA, has found increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to low infant birth weights and immune system effects. The most intensively investigated of the PFAS family, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), have also been linked to cancer (PFOA) and thyroid hormone disruption (PFOS).

One of the feature the PFAS family members share – their carbon-fluorine bond – imparts high thermal stability and resistance to degradation, leading to them being dubbed “forever chemicals”.  

In the United States, while PFOA and PFOS manufacturing has been phased out since the early 2000s, PFAS are present in the blood of an estimated 98% of the population. The highest levels have been found in communities close to airbases, where PFAS-containing firefighting foams were used, and around chemical production plants. Recent high-profile lawsuits have resulted in multi-hundred-million-dollar settlements by Scotchgard producer 3M and Teflon manufacturer DuPont, as depicted in the 2019 movie Dark Waters

On June 22, this year, the US EPA finalised a Significant New Use Rule giving the agency the authority to review a list of some 172 products containing PFAS before they can be manufactured, sold or imported in the United States. 

In terms of drinking water, the US operates a non-mandatory health advisory, recommending drinking water not contain PFAS above 70 parts per trillion (ppt). However, having recently concluded a public consultation phase, the EPA is currently considering whether to set enforceable limits for PFOA and PFOS. In the meantime, some states are moving ahead independently. For instance, on June 1, 2020, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection set a maximum contaminant level of 14 ppt for PFOA and of 13 ppt for PFOS.

Detecting PFAS at Environmental Quality Standard limits has proven problematic using conventional laboratory methods. However, these low levels are not an issue for Chemcatcher® as it can effectively concentrate pollutants compared to spot sampling.

Movements in the EU

In the European Union, a 2020 update to the 1998 Drinking Water Directive includes the introduction of controls on 20 forms of PFAS, with a legally binding drinking limit of 100 ppt. There are also proposals to develop testing protocols as well as a legal limit for all 4,700+ PFAS chemicals within three years.

The European Commission has also adopted a new law, amending Annex I to its persistent organic pollutants regulation to ban PFOA, its salts and PFOA-related compounds. This has now entered forced and is being applied as of the start of this month (4 July 2020), with some exemptions to apply for up to five years, including use in some types of medical devices, photographic coatings, industrial sealants, medical textiles and protective clothing textiles.  

Asia and globally

The move follows the parties to the UN’s Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants unanimously agreeing in May 2019 to a global ban on PFOA, with some exemptions.

In Asia, signatories to the treaty include Japan, China, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand, and PFAS chemicals are very much on the agenda in this part of the world too.

A study of vegetable and grain crops from open fields in the vicinity of the mega fluorochemical industrial park in Fuxin, China, found that PFAS contamination represented a health risk for local residents. Meanwhile, in Australia in February this year, the federal government reached a $212.5m settlement with residents near two military bases, where PFAS-containing firefighting products had been used.