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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Egan

PFAS: Can buyer power save the day?


Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) have become a subject of increasing concern in recent years due to their widespread presence, persistence in the environment, and potential health risks. In this blog, we'll explore the history of PFAS, highlight products that commonly contain PFAS, delve into recent legislation aimed at addressing this issue, and share how ecomedes is supporting this effort at the Federal level.


The History of PFAS


PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries since the 1940s. Their unique properties, such as resistance to heat, water, and oil, made them valuable in applications like non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, firefighting foams, and more.


Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) have become synonymous with Teflon, the brand name for polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a type of non-stick coating used in cookware. Teflon revolutionized cooking with its ability to prevent food from sticking to pans, making cleanup a breeze. However, concerns rose about the health and environmental impacts of PFAS, including PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), which were historically used in the production of Teflon. While Teflon itself is chemically inert and generally considered safe for cooking at moderate temperatures, the manufacturing process and potential degradation of the coating at high heat can release harmful fumes and particles. As a result, efforts have been made to reduce or eliminate the use of PFAS in cookware, and consumers are increasingly seeking alternatives that offer non-stick properties without the associated risks.


As the use of the chemicals expanded, concerns about their environmental and health impacts grew. Studies revealed that PFAS are highly persistent in the environment and can accumulate in the bodies of humans and wildlife. Moreover, certain PFAS have been linked to adverse health effects, including developmental delays, reproductive issues, and an increased risk of certain cancers.


One of the biggest disruptions of the PFAS industrial complex was an excellent move, "Dark Waters," directed by Todd Haynes (released in 2019).  It is a gripping legal thriller based on the true story of environmental attorney Rob Bilott's battle against chemical giant DuPont. The film follows Bilott, well played by Mark Ruffalo, as he uncovers the company's decades-long pollution of waterways with toxic PFAS chemicals, particularly in Parkersburg, West Virginia. This shed light on the devastating health effects suffered by the community due to PFAS contamination, including cancer, birth defects, and other serious illnesses. By bringing this environmental injustice to the forefront of public consciousness, the film played a significant role in the PFAS disclosure movement, prompting increased scrutiny of corporate practices, calls for regulatory reform, and heightened awareness among consumers about the presence of PFAS in everyday products and the environment.



Where will you encounter PFAS?



PFAS can be found in a wide range of products, many of which are everyday items that you might not expect. Some common products that may contain PFAS include:


  • Non-Stick Cookware: Teflon-coated pans and pots are one of the most well-known sources of PFAS exposure in the kitchen.

  • Stain-Resistant Fabrics: Carpets, upholstery, and clothing treated with stain-resistant coatings often contain PFAS.

  • Waterproof Clothing: Outdoor gear like rain jackets and hiking boots may contain PFAS to repel water and stains.

  • Food Packaging: Some fast-food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, and pizza boxes are coated with PFAS to prevent grease from leaking through.

  • Firefighting Foams: PFAS-based firefighting foams have been widely used by military and firefighting agencies for their effectiveness in extinguishing fuel fires.


Did you know that some firehouses are doing full body scans of the fire fighters, partially due to the massive amount of chemical exposure putting out fires?  





Regulation & Legislation


In response to growing concerns about PFAS contamination and its impact on public health and the environment, governments around the world have taken steps to regulate these chemicals. In the United States, several key legislative actions have been initiated:



  • The Safe Drinking Water Act: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set a health advisory level for two PFAS compounds, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), in drinking water, as of April 2024.


  • The PFAS Action Act: This legislation, introduced in Congress, aims to regulate PFAS under various environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, and designate PFAS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).



  • Other States Several states have enacted their own regulations to address PFAS contamination, including restrictions on the use of PFAS in firefighting foams, food packaging, and other products.


Other states, who have not legislated on PFAS, are under pressure.  See this article from Illinois speculating about the impact of PFAS on human and amphibious life.   



Are all PFAS bad?


As with any movement to save human health, ecosystem health, and natural resources, there is opposition from a business standpoint.   In this case, the opposition is well funded and well organized.  


The arguments opposing PFAS regulation stems from concerns about the impact on profit and innovation in key sectors of the economy, as outlined by the Fluoropolymer Partnership here. The argument posits that stringent regulations, such as those proposed in California, could stifle innovation, hinder profit, create job loss, and hurt the competitiveness of industries such as aerospace, semiconductors, clean energy, electronics, medical, and industrial processes. 


This perspective highlights the complexities of balancing environmental protection with economic considerations.  It underscores the need for carefully crafted regulations that address the risks associated with PFAS while considering the “how” of compliance.  If no one can comply with the regulation, can we consider it successful? 



Compliance At Scale


Software can play a pivotal role in educating the market about sustainability issues, including PFAS.  This enables buyers (B2C and B2B) to employ demand-driven mechanisms to catalyze action. 


Through innovative platforms and tools, companies can provide comprehensive information about PFAS, including their sources, health impacts, regulatory developments, and alternatives. By harnessing data analytics and artificial intelligence, software solutions can identify market trends, consumer preferences, and emerging concerns related to PFAS, enabling targeted educational campaigns and outreach efforts. 


Moreover, interactive applications and simulations can simulate real-world scenarios, illustrating the consequences of PFAS contamination and the benefits of adopting safer alternatives. By empowering consumers, businesses, and policymakers with knowledge and insights, software-driven educational initiatives can drive demand for PFAS-free products and solutions, incentivizing market players to prioritize sustainability and innovation. 


Ultimately, software serves as a powerful tool for shaping market dynamics and fostering a more informed, responsive approach to addressing the challenges posed by PFAS.


One example of this is a PFAS analyzer that ecomedes has launched for the GSA, to enable their definition of PFAS Addresses to be accessed by 1,000s of Government Procurement Officers.  The procurement team are not always PhDs in chemicals but with software like ecomedes, they can all easily and effortlessly be compliant. 



Conclusion


PFAS represents a complex and evolving challenge for regulators, industries, and consumers alike. While these chemicals offer valuable properties in many applications, their widespread use and persistence in the environment causes significant concerns. By raising awareness, implementing regulations, using market-driven software solutions to scale, and developing safer alternatives, we can work towards mitigating the risks associated with PFAS and protecting public health and the environment for future generations.


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