PFAS in focus: understanding, recognizing, acting in 2024

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT PFAS

Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are an extensive group of synthetic chemicals that have been developed and manufactured since the late 1940s.

These compounds are characterized by their high chemical stability and longevity, which is why they are used in a variety of industrial and commercial applications.

PFAS are widely used in the environment and in many consumer products, which has led to concerns about their impact on human health and the environment. Due to their ability to repel water, oil and dirt, they are used in products such as cookware, water-repellent clothing and fire-fighting foams.

Their presence in the environment is increasingly recognized as a global problem, as they can accumulate in water, soil and living organisms.

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#1 What are PFAS?

Definition and composition

  • General definition: PFAS is the abbreviation for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of over 10,000 synthetic chemicals, some of which have been banned in the EU since 2006. These chemicals are very long-lasting and degrade very slowly.
  • Chemical structure: Perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl compounds are aliphatic organic compounds in which the hydrogen atoms on at least one carbon atom have been completely replaced by fluorine atoms.
  • Carbon-fluorine bonds: Fluoroalkyls contain carbon-fluorine bonds, which are among the strongest chemical bonds in organic chemistry.

Diversity and number

  • Scope of the substance group: Estimates of the number of individual PFAS compounds vary. While some estimates speak of over 12,000 individual substances, according to other estimates the PFAS group comprises more than 10,000 different substances.

Features

  • Persistence: PFAS are known for their longevity, which means that they persist in the environment for long periods of time.
  • Bioaccumulative and toxic: They are persistent, bioaccumulative and can be toxic.

Production and use

  • Historical production: PFAS have been produced industrially since the late 1940s and are not naturally occurring.
  • Areas of application: Due to their special properties, perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are used in numerous industrial processes and technical applications, including the manufacture of water, grease and dirt-repellent products, in electronic devices, cosmetic products, impregnating agents, and in many other areas.

#2 Where are PFAS contained?

PFAS, because of their unique chemical properties, are found in a variety of consumer and industrial products. This omnipresence has led to widespread environmental contamination.

Everyday products

  • Cookware: Non-stick pans and pots are often coated with
    coated with perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs)
    to improve their non-stick properties.
  • Textiles: Waterproof clothing, such as rain jackets, as well as stain and dirt-repellent carpets and upholstery fabrics
    often contain fluoracyls
    .
  • Packaging materials: Some food packaging, especially fast food packaging, is coated with perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) to prevent liquids and fats from seeping through.

Industrial applications

  • Firefighting foam: PFAS are used in certain types of firefighting foams, especially in fires involving petroleum products.
  • Electronics: PFAS are used in the electronics industry because of their water and heat-repellent properties.
  • Construction: Certain types of paints, varnishes and sealants contain PFAS.

Environmental impact

  • Soil and water: Fluorocyls can enter the soil and groundwater through industrial waste, fire-fighting foam and agricultural practices.
  • Air: Some perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) can be released into the air and contribute to air pollution.

Regional differences

  • Industrial areas: Regions with high industrial activity often have higher PFAS concentrations.
  • Military sites: Due to the use of firefighting foam during military exercises, military sites are often significant sources of PFAS contamination.

#3 Why PFAS can be dangerous? (PFAS poison)

PFAS, also known as “Forever Chemicals” due to their extreme persistence in the environment and in the human body, have been of increasing concern in recent years due to their potential health risks and environmental impact.

Health effects

  • Bioaccumulation: Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances have the ability to accumulate in the human body, which can lead to long-term health problems.
  • Toxicity: Some studies have shown that certain perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) can have
    can have negative effects on human health, including
    including:

    • Impairment of the immune system.
    • Increase in the risk of certain types of cancer.
    • Negative effects on the liver.
    • Disorders in the endocrine system.
    • Developmental problems in fetuses and children.

Environmental impact

  • Persistence: PFAS are extremely persistent and do not degrade in the environment, leading to continuous accumulation.
  • Water pollution: Fluoracyls frequently enter water systems, leading to widespread contamination of drinking water sources.
  • Impact on wildlife: Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) can also accumulate in wildlife, causing health problems in animals and affecting biodiversity.

Investigations and regulations

  • Scientific studies: Extensive research is being carried out to understand the exact effects of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances on health and the environment.
  • Regulatory efforts: Efforts are being made worldwide to regulate the use and release of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in order to minimize the risks.

Summary

The potential health and environmental risks of PFAS make them an important issue for regulators, health organizations and the public. Their longevity, ability to bioaccumulate and toxicity are major reasons for growing concern and the need for increased control and regulation.

#4 How should PFAS be regulated?

With growing concerns about the environmental and health impacts of PFAS, governments and international organizations have taken action to control and regulate these chemicals.

Global and national regulatory initiatives

  • International agreements: Some per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in particular PFOS and PFOA, have been included in international conventions such as the
    Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants
    which led to restrictions and bans on their use.
  • EU regulations: The European Union has set specific limits for perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in drinking water and certain products and is working on further regulations to control the use and handling of PFAS.
  • National legislation: Various countries have taken their own measures to regulate fluorocarbons, ranging from complete bans on certain perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) to restrictions on their use in certain products.

Challenges in regulation

  • Chemical diversity: The large number of different PFAS compounds makes uniform regulation difficult.
  • Scientific uncertainties: Despite extensive research, there are still uncertainties regarding the specific effects of individual PFAS compounds, which makes it difficult to set limits and safety standards.
  • Industrial resistance: The widespread industrial use of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) leads to economic conflicts of interest, which makes it difficult to enforce strict regulations.

Summary

The regulation of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) is a complex and evolving field that challenges both science and policy.

Given the potential risks these chemicals pose, it is crucial to develop effective strategies to control their use and minimize their impact on the environment and human health.

#5 What is the current status of the ECHA's PFAS ban?

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has taken significant steps to restrict the use of perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances in the European Union.

These chemicals, which have become the focus of attention due to their extreme persistence in the environment and their potential health risks, comprise a family of around 10,000 substances.

Proposal to restrict PFAS

In 2023, the ECHA presented a proposal to restrict per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. This proposal was drawn up by five EU Member States – Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden – and submitted to ECHA. The aim is to achieve comprehensive
regulation of these chemicals
under the EU’s REACH regulation.

Public consultation and timetable


ECHA has launched a six-month public consultation phase for this proposal
for this proposal, which began on March 22, 2023 and ends on September 25, 2023. This consultation offers organizations, companies and individuals the opportunity to submit comments and information on the proposal. More than 4,400 organizations, companies and individuals have already submitted comments and information on this proposal.

Expected implementation

The EU member states involved are currently campaigning for an
EU-wide ban on PFAS
which is expected to come into force in 2026/2027. This ban aims to restrict the use and release of these chemicals in order to minimize the associated environmental and health risks.

Summary

The current status of the ban on fluoracyls in the EU reflects a growing concern about the effects of these chemicals and the desire to restrict their use through comprehensive regulation .

The public consultation initiated by ECHA and the planned timetable for the ban to come into force show that this issue is a high priority in EU policy.

The final decision and implementation of the restrictions will significantly influence the direction for the future use of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in the EU.

#6 Where are the PFAS loads highest?

Exposure to perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances is a global problem, with some regions being particularly badly affected. A comprehensive investigation in Germany has shown how far-reaching the contamination can be.

Extent of contamination

  • Germany: An investigation by NDR, WDR and SZ has identified more than 1500 locations with PFAS pollution including over 300 hotspots with significant pollution.
  • Europe: As part of the “Forever Pollution Project” over 17,000 locations with relevant PFAS pollution were localized throughout Europe, including around 2,000 hotspots that pose significant health risks.

Focal points of pollution

  • Airports and military sites: Many of these locations are airports and military sites where PFAS-containing extinguishing foam was used in the past.
  • Sewage treatment plants and landfills: Wastewater treatment plants and landfills are also affected, as PFAS-containing wastewater and objects accumulate here.
  • Industrial companies: Industries that use per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or raw materials contaminated with PFAS also contribute to pollution. Examples of this are the textile industry, metal finishing or companies that process waste paper.

The challenges of refurbishment

Summary

PFAS contamination is a widespread problem that affects numerous locations in Germany and throughout Europe. Places where products containing PFAS were used and industrial sites are particularly affected. 

The challenges of remediation and the lack of systematic investigation of many potentially affected areas illustrate the complexity and urgency of the problem.

#7 PFAS regulation in international comparison: differences between the USA, EU and Asia

USA

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recommended health advisory limits for PFAS in
recommended health advisory limits for PFAS in drinking water
but so far with only mixed success. The FDA regulates the use of approved perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in food contact products, but does not set maximum limits for fluoracyls in food .

Regulation has focused mainly on two chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, with concerns arising over the replacement of these chemicals with similar ones. On October 18, 2021, the
EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan announced the agency’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap
which outlines a holistic approach to addressing PFAS.

This roadmap sets deadlines for the EPA to take specific actions and commits to new, bolder policies to protect public health and the environment.

European Union

The EU is planning far-reaching restrictions on the production and use of PFAS. On February 7, 2023, the
European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) published a 211-page proposal on PFAS restrictions
under the REACH Regulation.

This proposal aims to largely eliminate the production and use of fluoracylene in Europe in most applications beyond certain very low limits.

ECHA plans to generally prohibit the manufacture, use or placing on the market of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances unless they are present in concentrations below certain limits. The European Commission is not expected to formally discuss the proposal until 2025, and the restrictions could come into force from 2026 or 2027.

Asia (focus on China)

In Asia, particularly in China, there is a clear need for stricter PFAS regulations.

A study by Tsinghua University revealed dangerously high PFAS levels in drinking water in various Chinese cities, underlining the urgent need to control and reduce PFAS emissions from various industrial sources.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances continue to be produced in China, although North America and Europe are already phasing out certain perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), including PFOA and PFOS.

China has taken steps to address new pollutants with a draft plan for the “
New Pollutant Management Action Plan
“, which provides stricter regulations for new chemical registrations, bans and restrictions on harmful chemicals, and strict standards for the content of hazardous chemicals in products.

#8 PFAS replacement: success stories in material innovation

  1. Substitutes in the paper packaging industry: A research team from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a study in 2021 on
    alternatives to PFAS in paper packaging for food
    . Waxes or laminations of paper with polymer films such as polyethylene (PE), poly(ethylene-co-vinyl alcohol) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) were identified as common strategies.

  2. Replacement in tribological applications: Ensinger has developed an alternative to PTFE-filled sliding materials that do not require PTFE fillers. These new plastic compounds called
    TECACOMP XS in combination with PPA, PA66, PPS and PEEK
    achieve excellent friction and wear results in various tribological applications.

  3. Substitutes in product development:
    RTI Innovation Advisors
    works with companies to adapt their chemical strategy and reduce or eliminate the use of problem chemicals in products. In their work, they have helped several leading companies to remove perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances from their products and to find viable alternatives for perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).

#9 The role of PFAS in the manufacture of O-ring seals

  1. Use of PFAS in O-ring seals: PFAS, a group of chemicals, are used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water. These chemicals are widely used in various industrial and consumer products.

  2. Materials and applications: In the assembly of mechanical seals, bearing protection and related products, materials containing PFAS are often used, such as
    PTFE
    ,
    FEP
    ,
    PFA
    ,
    FKM
    ,
    FFKM
    ,
    FVMQ
    and FEPM (fluoropolymers). These materials are usually found in the form of molded rubber (elastomeric polymer), shaft seals, gaskets, O-rings and other secondary products.

  3. Regulatory efforts and challenges: Some companies are trying to ensure that their elastomers are free of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in order to comply with regulations from authorities such as the EPA and ECHA. Despite these efforts, the use of certain PFAS compounds in sealing products such as valve packings
    sealing products such as valve packings, pump packings, gaskets and O-rings
    in various applications is essential and beyond that there is no alternative.

  4. Chemical properties and classification: PFAS is a general term used to describe a group of compounds containing carbon-fluorine bonds (C-F3 and C-F2). This includes all fluoropolymers and fluoroelastomers such as FKM, FFKM, PTFE and many others.

#10 Essential use of PFAS and the lack of alternatives

Essential applications of PFAS

Some applications of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are considered essential due to their specific properties and the lack of suitable substitutes. For example
perfluorosulfonated membranes, which are used in chlor-alkali production
are essential for ion exchange.

These membranes replaced toxic mercury cells and diaphragms made from carcinogenic asbestos. Such applications are indispensable, as there are no established alternatives that offer the required technical function and performance.

The challenge of developing alternatives

The development of alternatives to PFAS represents a major challenge. While for some uses of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substancesWhile there are alternatives to PTFE-coated dental floss, for example, there are still no suitable substitutes for other applications, especially those that are considered essential for the safety or function of society.

In such cases, continuous research and development of PFAS-free alternatives is crucial.

Summary

The chemical resistance of fluoracylene is both a blessing and a curse. There are a large number of applications for which there are still no suitable alternatives. At the same time, it must be taken into account that perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are indispensable for the urgently needed energy transition and that this will not change in the short term.

The discussion on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances should not only focus on the risks, but also take into account the essential importance of these chemicals for certain applications and the challenges in finding alternatives.

But the main objective must of course be to drive forward the development of material alternatives in order to reduce dependence on persistent and potentially harmful chemicals as far as possible.

#11 FAQ on the most important questions about PFAS

  1. What are PFAS? PFAS are industrially produced substances that do not occur naturally. They comprise at least 10,000 different compounds and are characterized by their chemical and physical stability.

  2. Which products contain PFAS? Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are found in many consumer products such as fast food packaging, outdoor clothing, non-stick pans, electronic devices, cosmetics, waterproofing agents and ski waxes. They are also used in industrial processes and technical applications.

  3. How do PFAS get into the food chain? PFAS can enter the food chain via the atmosphere, water and soil. Their chemical stability means that they are very persistent in the environment and can accumulate in plants and animals.

  4. Are PFAS also detected in humans? Yes, PFAS can be detected in human blood plasma, serum and breast milk. The internal exposure to PFAS varies depending on the compound.

  5. What happens to PFAS after absorption into the body? PFAS can either be excreted unchanged or metabolized to other PFAS. Long-chain fluoroalkyls such as PFOS and PFOA are only excreted slowly, which can lead to their accumulation in the human body.

  1. Are PFAS harmful to health? Some PFAS compounds have been linked to various health problems, including cancer, liver and thyroid disease, and immune and reproductive disorders. Long-term exposure can increase the risk of these diseases.

  2. Are there environmentally friendly alternatives to PFAS? While research into more environmentally friendly alternatives to PFAS is underway, there are still no widely available substitutes that can fully replace the unique properties of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), especially in demanding applications such as semiconductor manufacturing and medical devices.

  3. Can PFAS be recycled or disposed of safely? The disposal and recycling of PFAS-containing products is difficult, as perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are chemically very stable and difficult to break down. Advances in waste treatment and recycling technologies are needed to safely handle fluorocyls.

“I am convinced that we should share our knowledge with the world. I hope I have been able to answer all your questions. If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact us at any time. We will be happy to help you.”

Luke Williams
Luke Williams

Lord of the O-rings
Author of the poetry academy

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