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LISTEN: Navigating PFAS in products, alternatives, and potential bans

Courtesy of the North Carolina National Guard

It’s not uncommon to see news stories that say, “toxic forever chemicals discovered” in insert-consumer-product. Just in the last year, PFAS have been reported in eye contacts, toilet paper, dog food, and fast-food packaging, among many others.

WCMU reporter Teresa Homsi spoke with Jonatan Kleimark, a senior chemicals advisor for Chemsec.

Chemsec is a Swedish government-funded organization that studies hazardous chemicals. The organization recently released a guide for industries to see which products contain PFAS and what the alternatives are for the highly useful – albeit toxic – chemicals.

Below is an abridged transcript of their conversation on PFAS alternatives and bans.

Homsi: Why are PFAS something that need to be discovered? Why don’t we already know what products they’re in and how they’re being used?

Kleimark: First of all, I think it’s a general problem that producers of consumer products have not enough information of what the chemical content are in those products, so it’s not limited only to PFAS that we don’t know what’s in products, it’s a more general problem. But if we talk about PFAS, the problem is that it has an extremely good performance for different functions. If you want to coat something and have it be water repellant, then PFAS is a great way to do that, and that can be applied to all different kinds of products and materials. This high performance has made it used a lot, in many cases, that information – what has been used - has not been transferred in the supply chain. Then the consumer products will contain PFAS.

We’ve seen that with chemicals before. If we see legislation around a group ban of PFAS, I think that will sort of be an eyeopener for companies that they- we don’t know anything about this, why don’t we know that? We need to be better at understanding this because it’s very cumbersome for companies to be in the situation that there’s regulation upcoming, we need to do something now. There’s almost a panic and you want to stay away from that. I think in the future, hopefully this will mean that companies have more knowledge about the chemical content, at least, that’s the hope we have.

Homsi: With more than 9,000 different PFAS compounds, how many of those chemicals are we actually focusing on? PFOA and PFOS are usually the higher priority ones when it comes to legislation and regulations, but I’m interested in the use. Are some applications of PFAS a higher priority than others?

Kleimark: We see in the US that we see initiatives around that where specific set of products are targeted for PFAS legislation. I think it’s hard to say this sector is the easiest or the best one to start with. What you can look at, of course, is emissions and volumes used of PFAS. It’s very hard to get that data.

I think it’s easier and better to do as in the EU is trying to do and group-ban them because we need to stop the flow of PFAS from our products into nature and humans. I think the most effective way of doing that is frankly restrict them because there are a lot of places where we can substitute today and we should do that.

If you want to prioritize, try to look at large volumes. From EU perspective, that’s textiles and f-gases used as refrigerants in air conditioners, and of course, the fluoropolymers. Regarding the sheer number of PFAS, I think that’s very interesting. Even though we’re talking about these thousands of PFAS, I’d say there’s a much lower number that’s actually relevant. At Chemsec, we looked at what PFAS are registered in the EU and US, which means they are used and produced, and that was 416. Of course, that’s more manageable than looking at 9,000, 10,000, some even talk about millions of PFAS compounds.

Samples of PFAS-contaminated water await plasma treatment at the MSU plasma lab.
Teresa Homsi
Samples of PFAS-contaminated water await plasma treatment at the MSU plasma lab.

Homsi: We don’t want to replace a PFAS chemical with something just as bad, if not worse. What are our options, really?

Kleimark: I would say there are a few uses where we do not have any alternatives today. I mean if we look at semi-conductor manufacturing, for example, which is a very important sector where PFAS is used quite extensively in the process. For many other uses, we have again, if we take the textile example, there we have alternatives for water repellency. Maybe we don’t have alternatives that give exactly the same performance regarding oil repellency.

If we then are forced to wash our jacket one extra time a year, might be worth it. I wouldn’t say, ‘yes, no problem,’ but I would say that today, we have quite a good overview of the alternatives, and we know fairly sure where we need to put the effort to find new alternatives that do not exist.

Homsi: I know that the EU has proposed different ban in grouping certain chemicals. In the US, we’re quite far behind in that matter, it’s a state-by-state basis. Something, even in Michigan, that’s been hard to get through is mandatory labeling, mandatory reporting of PFAS. And so, is that where the guide could have potential applications? Because right now it seems like it’s hard to ban a class of chemicals if you don’t even know where they are.

Kleimark: Of course, if you want to get rid of the chemicals, it’s more effective to ban them. Labelling is a way forward, but we see a lot of this legislation around labeling and reporting in the US. It is also a problem, all the responsibility of this labeling ends up on the end, consumer-close companies. But the problem is more of a supply chain problem because no one in the supply chain takes care of this, so it’s important to also think about how we can incentivize the supply chain to know about this.

Homsi: Another point I’ve heard, “well, we don’t really know what the health impacts are, or even the mechanisms of different compounds and how they actually work.” Is that something you consider or hear a lot of discussions on? Are we being a bit too forward-thinking in trying to do these outright bans if we don’t know these chemicals are all that toxic to us?

Kleimark: It’s definitely true that if we look at these 9-10,000 different substances, we don't have the data on them to say there’s actually a hazardous classification or their properties [are hazardous] to human health. What we can say is that all the PFAS that falls, at least under the PFAS restriction in the EU, are persistent, which means they won’t degrade. That’s a common property for all of these substances. That, in itself, is a very problematic property because it means that concentrations will be higher and higher over time.

It’s definitely a fair point that we don’t have all the data, but I would say... In the EU, we have something called the precautionary principle. If we can be more cautious, that would be great.

I think this is also a very good chance to stay away from what we call “regrettable substitution,” where you substitute one substance with something else that's also hazardous. That has been the case many times with different PFAS. For example, [when PFOA was banned], we moved to something called GenX, which now in the EU is regulated on our candidate list. It's so easy to move from one PFAS to the next PFAS, that's not regulated, and it's so easy to synthesize different kinds of PFAS.

If we have a group ban, we can stay away from that. We've seen historically, that if we ban one-by-one substance, there will always be companies that see the easy way to move to another similar substance, that probably will have hazardous properties as well.

National Wildlife Federation

Homsi: And for listeners here, I’d like to add and kind of define this precautionary principle we’ve been talking around. One way I’ve heard it framed, contaminants aren’t new, but why do we seem to be making the same mistake over and over and over again? And why don’t we assume that chemicals are guilty until they’re proven otherwise, proven to be safe? So that’s what we mean when we say “the precautionary principle” - at least that’s what I mean. Do you agree with that description?

Kleimark: No, I think that was a good description. It's a general, we’ve built the system in the other way. It is a problem because it’s easier to put the chemical on the market than to stop or ban a chemical from the market. If we start banning chemicals as families of substances, we’ll at least have a better opportunity to do something better.

Homsi: ChemSec also recently put out a list of the top PFAS producers. The report also said that the global costs of PFAS – I did the conversion myself, so I hope the numbers are alright, from euros to USD. But, $17 trillion - that’s the economic cost of cleaning up contaminated sites and healthcare costs – that outweighs the revenue from PFAS production, that’s around $28 billion. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on the numbers there, but I was just curious, what can we do with that information, knowing that the cost of PFAS on our environment, life, public health, is so much higher than what it provides manufacturers and producers.

Kleimark: The reason why we did that report was to show that it's sort of a bit absurd that if we look at the amount of money these companies actually generated, it's very small. And compare that to the trillions of dollars for human health and remediation – and I should add, the human health aspect is a few endpoints. It's definitely not a comprehensive human health aspect view, it still lacks a lot of different effects.

If we stop using PFAS or producing, we will have less jobs, and we will have less revenue, and we'll have less tax and less money. But if you compare that to the actual social costs, it's still not a big deal. Is it really important that we have these products - that we have a sofa we can have outside – if that’s the cost we have to pay? And it’s not the companies, it’s the taxpayers that have to pay that cost.

Homsi: Well thank you so much for your time, this was a great conversation.

Kleimark: Thank you, bye-bye.

For more information about PFAS in products and alternatives, visit Chemsec's PFAS guide.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.
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