Finding alternatives for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances
To reduce the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the environment and in products people use.
We are using technology landscaping to identify alternative chemicals that can be used alone or interactively to replace PFAS.
Our work enabled clients to find viable substitutes for PFAS containing chemistries during product development.
We constantly consume chemicals every day, whether we know it or not. While some of these chemicals are harmless, others can lead to negative health effects. Increasingly, consumers are concerned about chemicals with unintended consequences in products they use. These bad actor chemicals, often referred to as “forever chemicals,” do not break down in nature for generations, making them a detriment to the environment and places where people live and work. Many companies in the U.S. are addressing their use of these forever chemicals and looking for alternatives.
Recently, per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) have received consumer and regulatory attention. PFAS refers to a class of compounds that contain a fluorine-carbon bond and are used to make fluoropolymer coatings for everyday items. These compounds are used across a myriad of products for the unique properties they provide such as water or stain repellency, making them a popular chemical in items like outdoor gear, cosmetics, non-stick cookware, ski waxes, and stain repellent furniture.
In many of these products, PFAS can be difficult to replace while maintaining the product’s unique benefits. Some companies have attempted to replace PFAS with alternative chemicals but have been unsuccessful at launching a product that consumers would accept as a viable alternative. To address this need, several shorter chain PFAS compounds were developed and marketed as a more environmentally benign replacement for longer chain PFAS. Companies adopted these shorter chain counterparts without anticipating their potential negative side effects. The industry refers to this substitution of one bad actor with another as “substitution whack-a-mole.”
Health effects of PFAS spur a consumer backlash
Long chain PFAS are not found naturally in the environment, but they persist in the environment for long periods of time, increasing the chances that people and animals will eventually be exposed to them. PFAS have been found in polar bears, arctic foxes, ringed seals, mink, birds, and fish collected in the Arctic. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that over 95% of people in the U.S. have a form of PFAS in their bodies, as detected by a blood test study.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the health effects of PFAS in humans and animals. PFAS can cause reduced female fertility and sperm quality, reduced birth weight, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), increased total and non-HDL (bad) cholesterol levels, and changes in thyroid hormone levels.
Additionally, traces of these compounds have found their way into major cities’ drinking water supplies. Research conducted by Heather Stapleton at Duke University found high concentrations of PFAS in the Haw River and Jordan Lake in North Carolina. The movie “Dark Waters” highlights the danger of long-chain PFAS, telling the story of the DuPont Chemical Plant, whose use of these chemicals resulted in the contamination of the water supply in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Studies such as these caused a public outcry for the removal of PFAS from products. In 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its PFAS Strategic Roadmap, prioritizing safeguarding people, communities, and the environment from the impacts of PFAS.
Unfortunately, eliminating PFAS from consumer goods is not easy. Companies must find alternatives that allow their products to maintain the same performance that PFAS offer. Consumers are expecting products to have the same performance without the detrimental health consequences.
Assisting clients with the challenging search for PFAS alternatives
RTI Innovation Advisors works with companies to address their chemical strategy and reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals of concern in products. Our experts must balance the wishes of the client and consumers along with scientific findings. Because it is challenging to eliminate PFAS, companies are looking for alternatives that have similar properties and activity without the negative implications.
In our work related to chemicals of concern, we track chemistry while following legislation and regulations. We research environmentally benign replacement chemistries to help companies avoid substitution haphazardly. Many alternatives aren’t validated and often lead to more serious outcomes. We advise companies on which changes to introduce to formulas, materials, and partner choice, so that they can respond to a growing consumer concern and adopt sustainable chemical policies and programs as needed.
We have consulted with several leading companies as they have worked to remove PFAS in their products. For years, many of these companies have struggled to find viable alternatives for PFAS only to come up empty handed. However, due to recent studies, many companies have added PFAS to their non-allowable list, increasing the urgency to remove these chemicals of concern from products. As a result, our clients now want immediate solutions.
“Within the last two years I’ve seen that organizations are realizing that sustainability challenges—such as the removal of PFAS from products—are complex and require a systems approach to solve them,” said Dr. Jamie Pero Parker, of RTI Innovation Advisors. “In the case of PFAS, for example, it literally takes a village to find adequate replacements. It is fulfilling to finally be at this point because this understanding allows us, as RTI Innovation Advisors, to bring about real change.”
RTI Innovation Advisors positions clients to understand the science related to their products. A few years ago, a client sought out expertise. They believed short chain PFAS didn’t have the negative environmental and health impacts associated with long chain PFAS. They asked for our insights before investing millions of dollars in short chain PFAS replacements. Our experts found that the safety of the short chain PFAS did not appear to be better than their long chain counterparts. After interviewing experts and conducting a literature review, we found that short chain PFAS caused potentially more damage than the long chain compounds. As a result, our client formulated a plan to eventually remove all PFAS from their products. While an immediate solution takes time to formulate and implement, our Innovation Advisors work closely with clients to achieve their ambitious goals and create a safer environment for the future.