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When Yesterday’s Breakthrough Innovation Becomes Today’s Problem

The challenge of removing PFAS from the supply chain

plastic manufacturing

Introduction to PFAS and Their Many Uses

Did you know that many of the products you use regularly may contain synthetic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) or “forever chemicals”? PFAS are a group of more than 16,000 different compounds. While PFAS use began in a smaller number of applications like non-stick cookware and stain- and water-repellant fabrics, due to their effectiveness, they’ve become the chemical workhorse for many applications. They are now used in a broad range of products such as dental floss, medications, outdoor gear, art supplies, food packaging, electronics, and more.

The Evolution of PFAS Use and Consumer Perception

Decades ago, PFAS compounds were considered breakthrough innovations as they provided consumers with perceived benefits in their everyday lives, like pans that were easier to clean. This value to the consumer propelled industries toward increased use of PFAS because of its technical effectiveness. At the time that PFAS were developed, industries often didn’t measure the value of an innovation past its usage phase. As time continued, companies became increasingly aware of the drawbacks of PFAS, but many consumers still spent money based on the performance of product and were unwilling to purchase a PFAS-free good that provided inferior product performance.  As a result, these companies felt forced to maintain the PFAS status quo.

Shifting Manufacturing Practices Amid Environmental Concerns

Currently, there is a major shift in manufacturing underway given the burgeoning research on health and environmental risks from PFAS. More companies are making strides to remove PFAS from their product even if it may not provide the same practical performance as products that contain PFAS. Companies are working to evaluate other chemical options that will provide comparable features without the risks to human health and the environment. Although PFAS in products are most associated with water and stain repellency, they are also used in manufacturing for other functions such as a processing aid to produce plastic. In this application, PFAS is often used to coat the plastic production equipment and prevent the plastic from sticking. Unfortunately, PFAS used in this application can also be passed through to the end product.

There are also new or potential PFAS regulations and restrictions at the state, federal, and international level to restrict PFAS use in the supply chain. However, the broad range and ever-increasing number of PFAS compounds makes it more difficult to address PFAS usage in products. These regulations focus on the PFAS compounds that provide the greatest risk to human health and the environment. As regulations are enacted, the removal of one or more PFAS compounds from a product can take at least a year, due to the time required for product reformulation, reworking factory lines, purchasing new equipment, and more.

Avoiding Regrettable Substitutions with a Forward-Thinking Approach

There is some concern that regulating one or a small number of PFAS compounds at a time may unintentionally cause “regrettable substitution,” where an industry replaces one harmful compound with another. Regrettable substitution has in fact happened previously in the PFAS space. Around 2010-2020, industry transitioned from “long chain” PFAS (PFAS molecules that contain greater or equal to eight carbons) to “short chain” PFAS (PFAS molecules with less than eight carbons), believing that short chain PFAS had better human health and environmental performance. However, research found that short chain PFAS share the same health and environmental risks.

Although the timing of regulations to restrict PFAS can make it difficult for industries to evaluate an adequate replacement in the long term, it is critical that companies apply a more forward-thinking approach than has been used in the past to avoid repeating the same mistakes. To truly address the issue, regulators and industrial manufacturers must understand the environmental and health impacts of any replacement compounds, including other lesser known PFAS compounds, before integrating a replacement into the product. Beyond the imperative for producers, it’s also ideal for companies that use the chemicals to consider their product’s lifecycle more holistically beyond product performance while the product is in a consumer’s home. 

Anticipating Changes and Ensuring a Healthier Future

Research has made it clear that PFAS use is associated with pervasive environmental and human health impacts. Over the coming decade, the regulatory landscape and consumer sentiment will necessitate changes to the way that companies produce products containing PFAS. Many questions remain about whether the changes will be sufficient to maintain product quality and consumer satisfaction while still protecting health and the environment. A deliberate process that includes more sustainable replacement candidates will go a long way toward ensuring that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past and that we can ensure a healthier future for all.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Jamie Pero Parker (Innovation Advisor), Jennifer Hoponick Redmon (Senior Director, Environmental Health and Water Quality), James Harrington (Research Chemist, Fellow), and Imari Walker-Franklin (Research Chemist) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.