This is the ominous label often applied to PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), encapsulating both their functional utility and their harmful impact.
At Antea Group, we’ve been helping clients understand and manage PFAS since long before they gained notoriety in 2016, when the Environmental Protection Agency first launched drinking water advisories pertaining to this chemical class. With the EPA and other agencies ramping up regulations, it’s more important than ever for today’s businesses to be aware of what PFAS are, where they are found, and how to help keep them under control.
What Are PFAS?
The defining trait of PFAS is their persistence, owing to a carbon–fluorine bond that is the strongest chemical bond in organic chemistry. These synthetic, human-made chemicals don’t degrade, which led to rapid adoption after they were introduced back in the mid-1900s. Representing thousands of distinct chemicals, PFAS are commonly found in things like food packaging, non-stick cookware, textiles, manufacturing electronics, and much more.
PFAS also wind up contaminating their environment, which is why regulatory agencies are beginning to clamp down. A study in January by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that discovery of PFAS contamination is growing at an alarming rate, with confirmed cases at more than 2,300 sites in 49 states. The Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) required by EPA for drinking water across the U.S. in 2016 resulted in the discovery of PFAS in drinking water supplies for 6 million U.S. residents, exceeding the EPA’s lifetime health advisory (70 ng/L). Lower analytical reporting limits and additional sampling of smaller utilities serving <10,000 individuals and private wells would greatly assist in further identifying PFAS contamination sources.
Research is ongoing regarding the harmful effects of PFAS on people and the ecosystem, but we know it’s not good. Exposure to the chemicals studied so far has been linked to health issues such as cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease.
“It’s going to be a huge issue for decades to come,” says Caron Koll, consultant at Antea Group and PFAS expert.
Problematic as they may be, we can’t simply eliminate PFAS entirely. They serve essential functions that can’t presently be replicated by other existing alternatives. PFAS are fire-resistant, corrosion-resistant, and water-repellent. They prolong the life of products such as hydraulic fluids and are very effective for putting out petroleum fires, as a couple of practical examples.
“We need them,” says Caron, “but it's a matter of risk management.”
Emerging PFAS Regulation and Oversight
We’re still at a point where organizations can be proactive rather than reactive in addressing potential PFAS issues. But the clock is ticking, and delaying this priority any further could lead to mounting costs and complications.
As Environment + Energy Leader explains, the EPA currently classifies poly-perfluoroalkyl compounds as emerging chemicals of concern, meaning “the agency cannot yet legally enforce any of the guidelines set for the handling, manufacture, import, disposal, and environmental removal of PFAS substances” from their action plan initially drafted in 2019. But as the article details, there are measures in place to fast-track enforcement, and the transition to a more climate-focused presidential administration only serves to enhance this movement.
Caron believes we may be as little as a year away from PFAS receiving “Maximum Contaminant Level” and “Hazardous Material” designations from the EPA, which will swiftly strengthen compliance mechanisms. Toxic Release Inventory Reporting Requirements, due July 1st for PFAS, are making this a more pressing concern, creating transparency and heightening the pressure from a brand safety standpoint.
What To Do About PFAS
Many different industries interact with these compounds, including aerospace, automotive, mining, oil and gas, manufacturing, food and beverage, building and construction, and electronics.
If you’re aware that PFAS are present in your products or anywhere within your supply chain but don’t yet have a handle on it, we strongly recommend a PFAS screening to gain clarity on your situation and requirements. This is unfortunately a murky matter throughout many organizations and industries, because these compounds have often been treated as trade secrets — thus, unreported.
By conducting a PFAS screening, you’ll be able to make informed and optimal decisions around liability management strategies, compliance reporting, supply chain considerations, and benchmarking. At Antea Group, we recently launched a PFAS Screening Tool designed to make this process straightforward and efficient.
“If it’s essential for your business, manage that waste,” urges Caron, “so you’re not discharging it to a municipal wastewater treatment plant or water supply that’s going to come back for remediation cost recovery.”
These are the realities faced by modern businesses, and there are potentially dire consequences to inaction.
PFAS Management Support from Antea Group
For more than a decade, Antea Group has been collaborating with clients and interfacing with regulators to understand PFAS: their sources, their behaviors, and their precursors in the environment. We pride ourselves in having as much expertise on PFAS as anyone in the industry. Because of this, we recognize the gravity of the environmental implications and the urgency of addressing them.
We want to be part of the solution. We’re eager to help any organization that wants to get its PFAS risks under control, preparing for a future of more stringent regulation and greater public scrutiny. True to their name, the forever chemicals aren’t going away.
For more, attend our upcoming PFAS webinar
Watch the on-demand webinar, The Top 4 Actions to Take Regarding PFAS in a Changing Regulatory Environment. Our PFAS experts share the four fundamental steps you should take to either remove PFAS from your list of concerns or address this class of compounds in a way that minimizes your business risk. It’s time to manage the risks to your brand, product, legacy liability, and operations.Watch On-Demand
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