PFAS – the chemicals on everyone’s lips
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PFAS – the chemicals on everyone’s lips

PFAS seem to be everywhere right now – not just in consumer products or in the environment but also in the press, in policy rooms and on product labels.

This four-lettered abbreviation is receiving a lot of attention and is, without a doubt, a hot topic in the world of chemicals at the moment.

Boiled down to one sentence, PFAS are great in terms of functionality and are used in a whole heap of applications while at the same time being highly persistent in the environment and extremely damaging to human health and our planet.

This is a good start – but it doesn’t paint the entire picture.

To begin with, the abbreviation PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and includes more than 4,700 individual substances with similar chemical structures (such as PFOA and PFOS). Some of them are produced and used on a scale of thousands of tonnes or greater every year.

PFAS have been widely used in industrial and consumer applications since the 1950s, most often where water repellence or a non-stick function is needed.

Fire-fighting foams, textiles, frying pans, food packaging and make-up are just a few examples of how widespread the use of these chemicals is.

“PFAS are highly persistent and accumulate in our environment and in our bodies”

Now to what all the fuss is about.

PFAS are highly persistent in the environment, meaning that they take forever to break down in nature. This causes them to accumulate in our environment and in our bodies.

Their persistency, coupled with the fact that they have been found to be toxic, is a recipe for disaster.

These “forever chemicals” are frequently associated with several negative health effects in humans such as lowered birth weights, negative effects on the immune system, cancer, reduced sperm quality and attention deficit disorder.

At a policy level, restriction of PFAS has so far been complicated. In the European Union, current legislation makes it hard to regulate chemicals on a group basis, so when one of these chemicals has been banned or restricted, another almost identical one is used to replace it.

“Starting next year, a new EU restriction will be rolled out in steps until 2023”

At the moment, nine PFAS chemicals are listed on the Candidate List, but only one – PFOS – is restricted. However, starting next year, a new EU restriction will be rolled out in steps until 2023.

This restriction will cover a group of about 200 PFAS substances.

Many companies are, nonetheless, starting to phase out PFAS from their products on their own initiative because they see how problematic these substances are in terms of human health and the environment.

One example is the Danish retailer Coop who decided to completely stop the sale of microwave popcorn in their stores because the popcorn bags were lined with PFAS. Five months later, Coop’s supplier found a technical solution to the problem and was able to offer them bags without a fluorinated chemical coating, bringing microwave popcorn back to the shelves.

Another example comes from the cosmetics industry, with some of the world’s biggest cosmetics brands – including L’Oréal, the largest cosmetics producer on the planet – announcing that they will start phasing out PFAS from their products as soon as possible.

PFAS are in no way indispensable to the products in which they are used. There are a lot of safer alternatives available on the market that fill the same function – many of them are listed on Marketplace.

PFAS are in no way indispensable, there are a lot of safer alternatives available”

One alternative is a food packaging tray from Rottneros made entirely from wooden raw material. Apart from being biodegradable, the tray is also recyclable and renewable.

There are also alternatives for textile applications, such as the biodegradable durable water repellent for textiles from Sciessent made without perfluorinated chemicals.

Or the water-resistant down from Allied that is given a unique fluorocarbon-free treatment to help it retain warmth without having to use PFAS.