They’re in our air. They’re in our water. They’re in our soils. They’re even in our bodies. Today, PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances), also known as “forever chemicals,” can be found just about everywhere—including our supply chains.
Because PFAS break down slowly (over hundreds of years), they persist and accumulate in the environment. As a result, researchers and regulators are increasingly concerned about the impact these chemicals may have on our health and ecosystems.
This has led to increased scrutiny from state and federal regulators and an evolving regulatory landscape that manufacturers need to be aware of.
Below we’ll review what PFAS are, why they’re getting attention, and what regulations procurement professionals will need to monitor for compliance.
PFAS are a group of over 4,000 man-made fluorinated organic substances that have been used in a variety of industrial and consumer products since the 1940s. They have earned the name “forever chemicals” due to their resistance to degradation—some PFAS can take 1,000 years to break down in the environment, and others don’t naturally degrade at all.
For a more technical definition, PFAS are substances that include any member of the class of fluorinated organic chemicals containing one fully fluorinated carbon atom. PFAS are most easily categorized into two groups: polymers and non-polymers.
Polymers vs. Non-Polymers
While there are a variety of differences to consider on a chemical level, the most important types of PFAS to understand for regulatory and reporting purposes are polymers and non-polymers.
Polymers are purposely added to products and currently have few restrictions, with the exception of food packaging in California. These are the PFAS that companies will be reporting on as part of their regular manufacturing process.
Non-polymers are highly restricted and include:
Most non-polymers are not intentionally added to products but are instead an ingredient to make something else, a manufacturing aid, or a degradation byproduct.
PFAS can last in our bodies for years and accumulate over time. In fact, today, most people in the U.S. have been exposed to PFAS and have PFAS in their blood, especially perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
Non-polymer PFAS are the most dangerous, although they’re usually only toxic in high concentrations. They’re surfactants or a substance that reduces the surface tension of a liquid in which it is dissolved. Our lungs and kidneys use natural protein surfactants to purge dead cells and fight bacteria and infection. But high concentrations of PFOA can change surfactant levels in kidneys, which can impact kidney function and lead to cancer.
PFAS have also been linked to other adverse health effects, including liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease.
One of the most important PFAS to avoid is PFOA, which is often used in products for its non-stick, water-resistant, or stain-resistant properties.
Products with non-polymer PFAS include:
In contrast, polymer PFAS have little reactivity with humans or the environment. As such, they are considered low danger unless they’re burned at extremely high levels (930 degrees F), which produces carbon monoxide and a variety of fluorinated substances.
PFAS can be found throughout the supply chain, so it’s important for procurement professionals in manufacturing to stay on top of current and emerging regulations and compliance requirements.
Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Regulation
The EU currently has stringent restrictions for PFAS. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) was adopted on 22 May 2001 and entered into force on 17 May 2004. The initial list of POPs included three categories: pesticides, industrial chemicals, and by-products. The EU has since restricted numerous PFAS, including PFOS, for over a decade and PFOA since 4 July 2020.
REACH is an EU regulation to improve protections for human health and the environment from chemicals. REACH stands for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals and went into force in June 2007.
Under REACH, companies must identify and manage the risks associated with substances they manufacture and market in the EU. Companies need to register their substances for evaluation by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). ECHA assesses whether the risks of the substances can be safely managed. If not, authorities can ban hazardous chemicals, restrict use, or require prior authorization. Currently, REACH prohibits up to 25 parts per billion for PFOA.
California Prop 65
The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (Prop 65) went into effect in 1986. It requires businesses to provide clear warning to Californians about exposures to chemicals (including PFAS) that cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm.
The law also prohibits California businesses from knowingly discharging significant amounts of listed chemicals into water sources. Today, the list includes around 900 chemicals. Failure to provide proper notices can result in fines of up to $2,500 per violation per day.
The California Safer Food Packaging & Cookware Act of 2021 (AB 1200) went into effect in 2021. It bans paper-based food packaging containing PFAS, requires cookware manufacturers to disclose the presence of hazardous chemicals, and prohibits misleading advertising on cookware packaging.
Prohibition of Certain Toxic Substances Regulations (Canada)
In 2022, the Canadian government proposed new legislation to restrict the use, import, manufacture, and sale of PFAS, including PFOS, PFOA, and LCPFCA. The law would replace the 2012 Prohibition of Certain Toxic Substances Regulations.
An Act To Stop Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances Pollution (Maine)
Maine requires manufacturers of products with intentionally added PFAS to report on the presence of these substances beginning January 2023. The law also prohibits the sale of carpets, rugs, or fabric treatments that contain intentionally added PFAS. And by January 2030, no product with intentionally added PFAS may be sold in Maine unless granted an exception by the state.
Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)
The EPA recently proposed a final rule under the TSCA that will require more robust reporting on PFAS manufactured or imported since January 1, 2011. When the rule goes into effect, it will trump all state requirements.
Biden Administration Priorities
The Biden Administration and EPA have prioritized efforts on regulating PFAS, including developing policies to address federal procurement practices with contractors. In Executive Order 14057, the administration emphasizes the need to prioritize substitutes for products that contain PFAS and directs agencies to avoid the procurement of PFAS-containing items where practicable.
Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (CSS)
The EU plans to extend reporting requirements to include polymers (not just non-polymer PFAS) under REACH. With an estimated 200,000 polymers on the market in the EU, this will have a significant impact on the industry.
With so many changing rules and increased regulatory scrutiny, it’s more important than ever to monitor your supply chain for compliance. Track your suppliers that are likely to have PFAS in their components or who will be impacted by current or upcoming legislation. This includes maintaining close relationships with them and continuing to monitor them for compliance.
Use a supplier intelligence platform that allows you to organize your tens of thousands of suppliers by those whose products may need to be closely monitored, tracked, or even audited from time to time. That will ensure that, as regulation continues to update and tighten, you can quickly understand the companies and contracts that could be impacted.
The industry is trending toward heightened restrictions for PFOA. And while polymer PFAS chemicals won’t be heavily restricted any time soon, additional reporting requirements are very likely in both the EU and the US. Don’t get caught unprepared.