Are you familiar with any of these items: non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpets and furniture, food takeout containers, firefighter foam? Then you should be concerned about PFAS and should keep reading.
What Are PFAS?
“PFAS” stands for Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and represents a wide range of man-made chemicals with high chemical and thermal stability that can repel water and oils (Health Canada, 2021). Given their useful properties, they have been widely used since the 1940s to manufacture numerous industrial and consumer products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water (CDC, 2022; EPA, 2022; FDA, 2022). Out of the numerous PFAS that exist, some are more commonly known compared to others, two of which are Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) which have been more widely used and studied compared to other PFAS (EPA, 2022).
A wide range of products may be made using PFAS. This includes (Safer Chemicals, n.d.):
- Stain resistant textiles, furniture, carpets, and rugs
- Sprayable stain protector
- Water-repellent equipment
- Heat resistant and non-stick cooking equipment
- Food packaging such as microwave popcorn bags, and takeout containers
- Specialty items such as insulated electrical wires, firefighting foams, ski wax
- Various automotive, aerospace, medical, and industrial applications
What is the issue with PFAS?
Scientific studies on several PFAS have revealed certain characteristics of concern. These include:
Persistence and environmental mobility. Many PFAS break down very slowly under normal environmental conditions and within living organisms. What this implies is that, when new PFAS is released into the environment, it adds up to PFAS that was released in the past and not broken down resulting in constantly increasing concentrations of PFAS in the environment with time. In addition to their persistence, PFAS are capable of moving through environmental media such as soils, water, and air, therefore more easily exposing living organisms to these chemicals. Given their widespread use, persistence, and environmental mobility, PFAS have been detected in humans, wildlife, and environmental media worldwide.
Bioaccumulation. Certain PFAS are found to build up in fish and wildlife. As a result of this build up, the concentration of PFAS in top predators of food webs is higher due to accumulation from consuming lower-level prey contaminated by PFAS.
Adverse health and environmental effects. Studies reveal PFAS to be associated with a range of adverse effects on humans, wildlife, and the environment. Exposure to certain PFAS have been linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals such as cancer, hormone disruption, liver and kidney toxicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, as well as harm to the immune system. Exposure to PFAS mainly occurs through food, water, house dust, as well as regular use of products that contain PFAS.
Given that PFAS represents a broad class of chemicals, studying and assessing the potential human and health effects of all these chemicals remains a challenge.
Regulations on PFAS
Many countries possess regulations only for PFOA and PFOS, which are the two most common and most studied PFAS. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) requires its 184 Parties to eliminate or severely restrict PFOS and PFOA and advises against the use of other PFAS in firefighting foams (Canada Gazette, 2021). For example, the Prohibition of Certain Toxic Substances Regulations, 2012 prohibits PFOA, PFOS, long-chain perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids, and their salts and precursors in Canada.
However, scientific evidence to date indicates that unregulated PFAS, which are used to replace prohibited PFAS, may also be associated with adverse environmental and/or human health effects. As a result, in recent years, many jurisdictions including the United States, Australia, New-Zealand, Canada and the European Union have chosen to address PFAS as a class instead of only regulating the common PFOA and PFOS. In Canada specifically, the government decided in 2021 to enhance research on PFAS as a class and publish a State of PFAS Report which will be used to inform any necessary new policies and regulations.
What should you do about this?
- If you are a government authority, you should continue to take the lead in passing policies and regulations to phase out PFAS based on scientific evidence.
- If you are a manufacturer or retailer, you should establish policies that promote safer chemical alternatives to PFAS in the products and packaging you produce and sell. Even though regulations in your jurisdiction might not yet prohibit PFAS as a class, taking such measures would give you a competitive advantage in the market, and would enable you to anticipate potential regulatory changes.
- If you are a consumer, you should watch out for products containing PFAS which were described above. You should avoid stain-resistant treatments. You should check your personal care products for Teflon, or ingredients with the word “fluoro” or “perfluoro”. If you choose to use non-stick cookware, you should avoid overheating them and should discard any products which show signs of deterioration on the non-stick coating.
Canada Gazette. (2021, April 24). Canada Gazette, Part I, Volume 155, Number 17: GOVERNMENT NOTICES. Retrieved from https://canadagazette.gc.ca/rp-pr/p1/2021/2021-04-24/html/notice-avis-eng.html#nl5
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, May 2). Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS) Factsheet. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/PFAS_FactSheet.html#:~:text=The%20per%2Dand%20polyfluoroalkyl%20substances,in%20a%20variety%20of%20products.
Health Canada. (2021). Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in Canadians. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/environmental-workplace-health/reports-publications/environmental-contaminants/human-biomonitoring-resources/per-polyfluoroalkyl-substances-canadians.html
O’Keeffe, J. (2019, March 13). Keeping drinking water safe: New guidelines for PFAS in Canada. Retrieved from National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health: https://ncceh.ca/content/blog/keeping-drinking-water-safe-new-guidelines-pfas-canada#:~:text=PFAS%20are%20not%20manufactured%20in,ink%20and%20photo%20media%20uses.
Safer Chemicals. (n.d.). Get the Facts: PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). Retrieved from https://saferchemicals.org/get-the-facts/toxic-chemicals/pfas-per-and-polyfluoroalkyl-substances/
U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). (2022, February 24). Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/food/chemical-contaminants-food/and-polyfluoroalkyl-substances-pfas
United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (2022, March). Our current understanding of the human health and environmental risks of PFAS. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/pfas/our-current-understanding-human-health-and-environmental-risks-pfas
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