Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of synthetic, fluorinated organic chemicals which have been used in large-scale production since the 1940s. Due to their strong carbon-fluorine bond, PFAS can withstand high temperatures and are extremely durable. PFAS have been dubbed “forever chemicals” as they often take over a decade to degrade.

In March 2023, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), as the Agency for UK REACH and supported by the Environment Agency, published a document which raises concerns about the human health risks of exposure to PFAS after studies detected PFAS in human blood samples.

Uses of PFAS

In addition to being able to withstand high temperatures and resist chemical attacks, certain PFAS are also oil and water repellent. Due to these desirable properties, PFAS have a wide range of industrial, professional and consumer uses, such as:

  • Paper and cardboard food packaging
  • Non-stick cookware
  • Textiles (eg. waterproof outdoor clothing and material)
  • Paints and printing inks
  • Medical devices and products (eg. anaesthesia)
  • Construction materials (eg. thermal insulation, fluoropolymer tubing etc.)
  • Cosmetics (eg. hair conditioner, sunscreen etc.)
  • Electronics (eg. computers, smartphones etc.)
  • Fire suppression systems and fire-fighting foams

Exposure to PFAS

Research suggests that exposure to PFAS from dermal absorption is typically much lower than if inhaled or ingested. For the general public, this could mean drinking water which has been contaminated with PFAS because it is extremely challenging for water treatment plants to remove these chemicals. PFAS can also be ingested by eating food packaged in PFAS-coated packaging, fish caught in contaminated water or food grown near places where PFAS are used.

Workers involved in making or processing PFAS-containing materials are at a higher risk of exposure than others. The likelihood of contact with skin, swallowing, and most importantly, inhaling PFAS is increased for workers in chemical manufacturing, firefighting and ski waxing industries.

Recent studies suggest that PFAS exposure could have the following health impacts: 

  • Increased risk of pre-eclampsia in pregnant women
  • Increased cholesterol levels
  • Accelerated reproductive aging in women
  • Increased risk of certain cancers such as kidney or testicular cancer
  • Decreased vaccine response in children
  • Changes in liver enzymes

It is important to note that different types of PFAS will have varying effects on different people and ultimately further research is needed in this area. 

Disposal of PFAS

HSE highlights a number of ways which PFAS may be exposed to the environment during disposal, eg. in landfill, by wastewater discharge or sludge spreading to agricultural land.

The Environment Agency recommends disposal through waste-to-energy installations (incinerators) as this is the only way to ensure that PFAS are destroyed. Certain PFAS require extremely high temperatures to break down, eg. tetrafluoromethane would need to be incinerated at a temperature above 1,400°C.

Despite disposal of PFAS waste being largely unregulated abroad, generators in countries such as the USA have elected to incinerate PFAS waste at permitted hazardous waste incineration facilities. Although not a cost-effective method, it may be considered the only viable option due to the difficulty of treating PFAS waste.

Regulation of PFAS

HSE references the difficulty in the regulation of PFAS because there is no globally adopted definition, and information on supply volumes and uses in British industry is limited. Existing regulations apply to specific PFAS, such as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) under the UN Stockholm Convention and F-gases under the Fluorinated Greenhouse Gases Regulations 2015.

Other regulations apply to the production of certain products such as detergents, pesticides and pharmaceuticals.

General regulations also apply to conditions for workers exposed to toxic chemicals and the general public, eg. minimum food and water quality standards; however, PFAS are not specifically referenced in any of these regulations.

The health concerns of PFAS has not gone unnoticed as five European Member countries are in the process of creating a joint REACH restriction proposal and the European Commission has included phasing out of all PFAS in non-essential uses in its Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability in 2020. Other countries have also introduced regulations relating to PFAS such as Canada, Australia, Japan and China.

Although there are measures in place, the HSE has criticised the UK regulation of PFAS for being piecemeal: there are large gaps in regulation for consumer exposure (eg. food contact) and environmental control.

Practical Points

Although there is currently no Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL for PFAS under the COSHH Regulations, employers have a duty to reduce exposure to a level as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP) for substances classified as carcinogens. Many PFAS have been shown to have carcinogenic properties, so as a precaution it would be advisable for employers to limit exposure to ALARP.

HSE suggests a number of regulatory reforms such as a UK REACH restriction on PFAS and voluntary initiatives could be introduced to support this. Such initiatives would raise awareness of the issue and ultimately reduce PFAS emissions. To be proactive, a company could identify products containing PFAS and implement measures to increase collection, reuse and recycling of these materials.

It may be appropriate in certain industries to use alternative materials with similar properties to PFAS to mitigate the risk of exposure; however, this may not be possible for complex industrial applications and alternatives may be less cost-effective. HSE also warn that alternatives should only be used if they are safe: some alternatives may be unregulated and could come with new, and potentially worse, health risks.

For more information on this topic, please contact Louise Mansfield, Legal Director or Louise Ducasse, Trainee Solicitor.

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